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Mike Kelley’s Arenas through the lens of the “cute”

by Clara Guislain

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“It's always been very important to me that my work has a socialized veneer. I’ve never wanted my work to be associated with the Dada sensibility - to be perceived as simply negational. I want the initial perception of it to elicit comfort, which then starts to break down.”1

Mike Kelley

In her theory of the cute, Sianne Ngai insists on the “exaggerated passivity”2 of the “cute” object that ensures its powerlessness and, in turn, its non-violent and reassuring character. Children’s toys are thus the emblematic manifestation. They must “submit themselves” to the game, adapt themselves to the fictions they are associated with, without showing any form of resistance to the imagination. In the various works that Mike Kelley produced from the late 1980s onwards, using knitted dolls, plush toys, doilies and crocheted blankets, the objects, while suggesting passivity, nonetheless evade it even if they feature all the characteristics— smallness, suppleness, roundness, softness—inherent to the cute. This is particularly true of the Arenas series, first exhibited in 1990 at the Metro Pictures gallery in New York. Forming a series of “islands” on the gallery floor, colourful carpets—often knitted or crocheted from fabric or wool—provided a seemingly protective “home” for various-sized stuffed animals, arranged in a variety of configurations and chromatic correspondences. This series, reminiscent of children's play mats, functioned first and foremost as an attack on a set of dominant artistic conventions, from the vocabulary of minimalist sculpture to that of commodity art. The blunt hardness of the industrial materials used in those kinds of works was countered by the softness of hand-crafted textiles, whilst the seductive, authoritative display of the commodity object raised on its pedestal or shelf, adopted by Jeff Koons or Haim Steinbach, was confronted by the deceptive pathos of this juxtaposition of scraps from intra-family exchanges with no monetary value on the floor. Kelley's approach to the cute was therefore primarily intended at highlighting a cultural material that was "questionable" or discredited because of its association with sentimentality. As Jennifer Doyle summarised, “sentimentality is generally unwelcome in institutional spaces associated with contemporary art; in its messiness, its direct assertion of the world of feeling, and in its hopeless association with the low and the popular (e.g. soap operas and pop music), the sentimental stands in opposition to the codes of conduct that regulate the social spaces of art consumption.3

As “infantile” but also “feminine” objects—derived from the craft of knitting and sewing traditionally associated with women—the materials of these early assemblages belong to the realm of cuteness. During this period, and particularly in his performances, Kelley, strongly influenced by feminism, had already taken up the issue of masquerade and “role playing” by adopting the persona of a pathetic, “feminised” male. A position he attributed to an adolescent memory involving handmade dolls. The young Kelley had responded to his father's insistence that he play “men's sports” by covering his bed with stuffed animals, some of which he had knitted himself in after-school workshops.4

In these early pieces that contributed to his international recognition, the stuffed animals on the covers were hardly dramatised. They had not been battered, “perverted” or sublimated, but were instead presented in a kind of bareness that seemingly deprived them of any allegorical potential. While occupying the same space as the public, they are maintained within limits formed by the surface of fabrics or blankets. Unlike the forms of abjection or obscenity that proliferated in American art at the time, these materials were immediately subjected to formalist compositional logics, aimed at establishing relationships of pattern and colour independent of the object's symbolic meaning. This way of “annexing” a non-artistic cultural object “burdened” by a formalist methodology had already appeared in Kelley's early paintings, conceived as a means of “testing the limits of equivalence.”5 In Arena #10 (Dogs), for example, small fabric dogs are arranged one after the other along the black line of a knitted blanket. The figures point their heads in opposing directions, this symmetry creating an effect of stasis, the objects standing as if immobilised within the confines of the motif. In Arena #9 (Blue Bunny), a small blue rabbit is placed in the centre of a blanket of the same shade, creating an optical effect of fusion between figure and background. Of course, this protocol of formalist annexation is only set up for failure, as, seeking to neutralise the object's charge, it protrudes onto another plane.

For these compositions are in fact too “orderly” to be cute. What disturbs their cuteness is not, initially, the question of the power relations that manifest themselves in the internal dynamics of each arena (evoking human relationships based on exclusion, submission and isolation), but rather the rigid order introduced into the arrangement of the objects. In this respect, it's also important that Kelley's stuffed animals are not “perfect” and immaculate, that, having been produced by hand, they are flawed and imperfect, some appearing as faulty imitations of industrial models, others having been deformed through use, sometimes bearing the marks of clumsy repairs. Unlike standardised industrial objects, most are not symmetrical. In the Arenas, Kelley counters the asymmetry that creates dynamism in the object by creating symmetrical compositions, giving each composition the character of constrained immobility.

It's also the fact that dolls and knitwear exist outside mainstream commerce, and are "priceless" objects, that accentuate, on the surface, their innocuous, socially non-segregating dimension. Designed to be given to small children and to arouse emotional attachment, these objects are surrounded by an aura of goodwill. The time generously given— the “love hours”6— required to make them - can be seen in every stitch. With their slightly deformed physiognomies, their imperfections, these priceless objects display a touching vulnerability, more "real" than the anonymous perfection of mass-produced merchandise. Each cuddly toy is in fact unique, and embodies a singular relationship, having been personalised for a particular child. Mike Kelley said, “These toys have a really strange presence  especially when you compare them to the commercially one that are standardized. (…) This is why they are so weird, I think they are unconscious projections of the maker.”7

In the Arenas, the layer of “benevolent” domestic work ethic and personalised affective exchanges, as well as the blend of simplicity and authenticity, constitute the first level of confrontation between us and these objects, conditioning us to perceive them as sentimental objects devoid of negativity, reassuring companions linked to the world of childhood and the family home. But these handcrafted objects are not only linked to the world of ordinary play. They retain the mark of their origins as “archaic” transitional objects, linked to the primary stage in the child's development of ego boundaries and relationships of otherness. For Winnicott, whom Kelley cited in several of his texts, it's because the transitional object must support the child's gradual evolution towards autonomy, thanks to the distinction between “me” and “not-me”, that its symbolic value is entirely dependent on bodily and tactile experience. All the traces of wear and tear that these objects bear, giving them a past, and a history, are not just marks of time or the unconscious projection of the adult who produced them, but the imprint of the affects that the child has invested intensively in them. In the course of their use, textiles have become charged with moods, smells, saliva and tears— unstable, organic and affective matter is both captive and still active within the meshes of the object. The effectiveness of the object, described by Winnicott as a mediator of social interaction, is based on its capacity to absorb; and it is this kind of malleability that is radically lacking in the cute object, which can only be deformed if it regains its shape after each use.

Like most of Kelley's cultural materials, stuffed animals have a specific weight, taking on an intermediary role between the internal and external worlds, between body and object. In The Fruits of Thy Loins, a stuffed rabbit exposes its interiority formed by a litter of small stuffed animals of different species. This is a biblical reference to the birth of Christ, the “blessed” fruit of Mary's womb, which holds within it the human god of salvation. Here, it's the profusion of “fruits” that undermines the assurance of the redemptive message. These swarming forms, made of the same material as their container, form a disturbing progeny through cellular multiplication, like a body eaten away from within by its own production, in a kind of autophagy. These "fruits of the womb" are what Kelley would photograph individually in Ahh Youth, and associate with his own acne-scarred face. In a 1987 drawing, Trickle Down and Swaddling Clothes, Kelley had depicted the image of childbirth as an evisceration or defecation, the spilling of intestinal guts being accomplished in the form of a smoking gift also known as “the human garbage can.” This anthropomorphized amorphous mass would later be equated with stuffed animals, as Kelley sought to understand the projective logics of which they were the object by pushing them to the limit, to the point where the human could merge with the physiognomy of garbage. Kelley's “trashy” humanism seems to carry within it the last germs of life, a crimson life, close to the undead, but endowed with an unsuspected vitality. These “germs,” which sometimes take the indistinct form of garbage, sometimes that of an empathetic, lovable figure, continue to look at us and stare at us.

In one of his texts, Kelley observed that the empathy felt by the public for the Arenas' knitted anthropomorphic dolls, the ability to see these objects as "human", was contingent on the fact that they lacked something. If they were perfect human replicas, they would be perceived as "monstrosities". This remark echoes what Ngai isolates from the cute doll, whose personification must remain fairly incomplete so that, in her view, the object does not become our equal. If, for Ngai, the cute is based on a well-established "power differential" between a subordinate form and a "dominant" user, Kelley in contrast used this aesthetic to demonstrate the mutability of these relations of desire and power, making it possible to envisage other, more unstable forms of relationship to otherness.

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