Hit Painkillers Before Seeing Sleazy Kelley Show: Review

Mike Kelley
"Mike Kelley as the Banana Man" (c. 1981). More than 200 works are included in “Mike Kelley,” a multimedia retrospective that fills MoMA PS1’s entire museum. Photographer: Jim McHugh/MoMA PS1 via Bloomberg.

A disturbed nude woman in a bubble bath brandishes a pipe. The Banana Man from “Captain Kangaroo” offers sex tips to tots. The Lincoln Memorial president relieves himself on unsuspecting children. And stuffed animals and doggy squeeze-toys inspire bestiality.

MoMA PS1’s sprawling “Mike Kelley” is the kind of show that makes you want to hit the painkillers. It may motivate some to seek analysis.

Kelley, who committed suicide last year at age 57, has turned into the provocative patron saint of performance, conceptual art and childish kitsch.

He was a prolific omnivore who worked in nearly every medium, but he made his twisted, Freudian career by mining the dark world of childhood.

Phallic forms and scatological references abound. Clowns are frightening; barbers, coaches and schoolmarms are pedophiles; stuffed toys are mere sexual fodder.

It’s a mindset in which nothing is sacred, innocence is a delusion and everything is reduced to an adolescent joke. The adult world is a factitious playhouse fueled by repressed traumas and desires.

Hellish Videos

In the gargantuan multimedia installation “Day Is Done” (1995), actual high school yearbook photos -- of sporting events, plays, pageants -- are reenacted in hellishly upsetting videos. It stomps resolutely on the myth of meaningful Facebook reunions and pleasant teenage reminiscences.

There is some truth to Kelley’s nihilistic vision -- an operatic sendup of everyone and everything, especially art. But his glib, sweeping dismissal is impossible to embrace without, finally, dismissing his oeuvre as just another meaningless, confrontational and sexually disturbed contrivance.

A retrospective of more than 200 works, this marathon show takes over PS1’s entire plant. Organized by Ann Goldstein, Connie Butler and Peter Eleey, it’s intriguing for the immensity and scope of its mess, sleaze and psychological prodding.

But aesthetically weak and unfocused, “Mike Kelley” reduces art to the glorified, uninhibited pursuit of self-indulgence.

Leger’s “City”

The carnivalesque entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” pulses like Times Square.

Signage, film clips and a moving montage of Fernand Leger’s painting “The City” run around the doorway.

It’s akin to walking into a giant Web page, a moving billboard or Cubist collage. The visual and aural assault -- an appeal, obviously, to younger audiences -- never really lets up.

“Leger” is a robust multimedia exhibition of paintings, sculptures, design and films that includes more than 160 works by some 40 artists.

His silvery, primary-hued masterpiece “The City” (1919) is the centerpiece, exploring the impact of the modern metropolis.

“Leger” is teeming with great works, but masterpieces -- some hung at cruising altitude -- are sometimes used as environmental props in a chaotic, thematic show, rather than as stand-alone works of art.

Organized by Anna Vallye, this commendable exhibition represents a great leap of faith in Leger, but its theatrics betray a failure of confidence in the power of art.

“Mike Kelley” runs through Feb. 2 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, Queens. Information: +1-718-784-2084; http://momaps1.org.

“Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” runs through Jan. 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Information: +1-215-763-8100 or http://www.philamuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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