Art

Barfing On The Declaration Of Independence: Mike Kelley’s ‘Reconstructed History’

Mike Kelley, John C. Calhoun from Reconstructed History series, 1989, ink on printed paper, mounted on paper (all images © The Estate of Mike Kelley/Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts; via Skarstedt Gallery)

Mike Kelley, John C. Calhoun from Reconstructed History series, 1989, ink on printed paper, mounted on paper (all images © The Estate of Mike Kelley/Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts; via Skarstedt Gallery)

Can you imagine anything more patriotic than an illustration of the Forefathers’ signing the Declaration of Independence emblazoned with the word “BARF,”? How about the Statue of Liberty covered with crudely rendered breasts, bush and armpits spewing waves of stink? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m just about ready to start feverishly singing about those “amber waves of grain.”

Where did this off-putting outpouring of patriotism originate, dear Filthy Dreams readers? Naturally, it came from fellow trash aesthete Mike Kelley’s series Reconstructed History, which is currently on view in its entire original 1989 50-piece glory at Chelsea’s Skarstedt Gallery.

Walking through the gallery while laughing at illustration after illustration filled with scrawled come-ons, drug references and copious dicks, the viewer can’t help but wonder as Kelley began his essay in the original book for Reconstructed History:

“Here we have a collection of grotesqueries, defacements of some of the most cherished images of our American past. Who could be responsible for such defilements? What could be the purpose of tarnishing the heroic figures and events we hold so dear?” (30).

Who indeed, Mike? Though surprisingly not, as Kelley writes, “the revolutionaries or Satanists you might have expected,” Kelley constantly asserted that these drawings were sourced from the No. 2 doodles of grade school students. However, it was Kelley himself who committed these gleefully ridiculous acts of American history debasement.

Mike Kelley, The Gateway to Freedom, from Reconstructed History series, 1989, ink on printed paper, mounted on paper (all images © The Estate of Mike Kelley/Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts; via Skarstedt Gallery)

Mike Kelley, The Gateway to Freedom, from Reconstructed History series, 1989, ink on printed paper, mounted on paper

In his book Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly, Charles Ludlam describes the use of ridiculous humor in the filth-laden plays of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. As he explains, “The Ridiculous Theatre was always a concept of high art that came out of an aesthetic which was so advanced it really couldn’t be appreciated. It had to do with humor and unhinging the pretensions of serious art. It comes out of the dichotomy between academic and expressive art. It draws its authority from popular art, an art that doesn’t need justification beyond its power to provide pleasure. It takes what is considered worthless and transforms it into high art” (108).

Certainly no stranger to taking seemingly worthless trash and transforming it into museum-ready high art, Kelley’s subversive obsession with bringing the detritus of his blue-collar childhood to the white-walled, collector-driven art world is at the forefront of his employment of immature scribbles, destroying, like Ludlam, “the pretensions of serious art.” From the Empire State Building with balls to a portrait of grim politician John C. Calhoun redrawn to look like Frankenstein’s monster, Kelley’s Reconstructed History is a bawdy ode to school-age transgressions–a world where bodily functions and hastily drawn dicks are king.

Maybe it’s because I, too, was a grade school scribbler, but Kelley’s Reconstructed History illustrations speak to me, making me want to start belting out the National Anthem. Ok, confession: I doodled well into college so I’m sorry poor NYU student who bought a used textbook full of mustaches, afros and vampire teeth (Don’t fine me).

And I’m not the only one: Filthy Dreams’ filth elder and, I’m assuming, fellow destroyer of textbooks John Waters finds a similar pride in Kelley’s Reconstructed History. A collector of these illustrations himself, Waters writes in his trashy tome Role Models, “Hanging in Baltimore is one of the hilarious 1989 Reconstructed History vandalisms–a real page from a history textbook that Mike defiled with glee, the same thing all gifted and pissed off kids did in high school, hoping to turn their rage into art. “BARF” adds Mike to the historic signing of the Declaration of Independence illustration, and now every Fourth of July I can feel patriotic thanks to Mike Kelley’s troublemaking, defiant reinvention of this dull textbook.”

Always up for an elaborate artistic joke, the entire aesthetic of the original book for Reconstructed History was a detailed satiric production, mocking staid and laughingly self-important historical textbooks.

As Kelley scholar and friend John C. Welchman describes in the introduction to Kelley’s original essay for Reconstructed History in the collection Minor Histories, “The embossed cover of the Reconstructed History, with crest and scholastic ‘Lamp of Knowledge,’ mimics the look of a high school yearbook or coffee table historical tome, and features a clear dust jacket defaced with morbid adolescent doodles. The book’s interior design resembles a high-end photography book, with protective barrier sheets between each isolated image. Kelley’s introduction was printed, in script, on faux parchment, emulating “colonial” design. Its style, tone and range of references–even in the original graphic layout using a pseudo-historical typeface–are all duplicitous” (28).

Mike Kelley, Osceola, Leader of the Indians in the Second Seminole War, from Reconstructed History series, 1989, ink on printed paper, mounted on paper

Mike Kelley, Osceola, Leader of the Indians in the Second Seminole War, from Reconstructed History series, 1989, ink on printed paper, mounted on paper

Even more hilarious than the design of the book itself is Kelley’s sober essay, which employs the jargon and tone of psychoanalysis to dissect the potential meaning of these bawdy drawings. Asserting that the graffiti-ed additions are not just schoolyard pranks but an effort to uncover the repressed deviant culture of sexuality and violence behind these patriotic images, Kelley notes, “It is this return of the repressed that gives a heroic images its repellent aura.” (30).

As Kelley continues, “Such childish resentment is the cause of the defacements presented here. The inability to accept their lower position in the order of things provokes these ‘artists’ to drag back to the surface garbage long buried–to sully, vandalize, and render inoperable our pictures of health. Not that such a tactic is always bad.” (30-31).

Claiming that these elementary school children are displaying a necessary step in their look toward the future by rudely reconfiguring the past, Kelley reveals, “They take their first, tottering step toward the construction of a glorious future with this: their degraded reconstruction of the past” (31).

Turning one of the lowest forms of art–grade school textbook graffiti–into both a high art object and an object for critical psychoanalysis, Kelley’s biting humor mocks quite a number of fields from the boring reverential American history textbooks forced down the throats of half-mast-eyed children to the somber yet nonsensical psychoanalytic language of repression and, last but certainly not least, the self-seriousness of the art world. If the Skarstedt press release, which reflects the points raised in Kelley’s essay, is to be taken literally (which I’m not thoroughly convinced it is…at least I hope not), Kelley, even 25 years after the illustrations’ creation, continues to jab at the art world’s pretensions.

In the early fall art season in Chelsea, which is largely filled with grim, boring or overly conceptual art, Kelley’s ridiculous interventions, mining the ruins of our American dream, is a welcome relief. And finally, we can be thankful that these drawings were not made by, as Kelley states in my favorite line in his essay, “candidates for a revolutionary youth army or satanic murder cult” (31).

Phew…

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One thought on “Barfing On The Declaration Of Independence: Mike Kelley’s ‘Reconstructed History’

  1. Pingback: Gnarly! Radical! Totally Tubular Dude!: James Unsworth’s ‘N.S.F.L.’ | Filthy Dreams

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