Mike Kelley at the Louvre

Jian-Xing Too

Tags: Mike Kelley, Paris, Review

Reviews / 18.12.2006

Mike Kelley's show at the Louvre (2006) is in the Salle de la Maquette, down below with the medieval moats. His installation Profondeurs Vertes ('green depths') coincides with the exhibition 'American Artists and the Louvre', presented two floors above. This is a selection of 25 American paintings dating from 1771 to 1942, some of which were exhibited at the Louvre in the artist's lifetime, but none of which belong to the museum's collection. Profondeurs Vertes constitutes Mike Kelley's own vision of American painting, and his choices offer welcome rivalry to the curatorial premises of the other show. The six paintings he has selected are part of the collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts; two murky, green works - Watson and the Shark (1777) by John Singleton Copley and The Recitation (1891) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing - are his stated primary focus. Unfortunately, the paintings are not there, as he only refers to them through his own work - three video projections, seven pencil drawings, one painting and twelve sound elements, all but one constituting the different soundtracks of the three videos. Besides, a text by Kelley on the project is posted on the Louvre's website. [Text]

Mike Kelley, Profondeurs vertes (detail) © Mike Kelley © Angèle Dequier/Musée du Louvre

Nobody talks about Mike Kelley better than Mike Kelley himself. This time, though, the text is better resolved than the exhibition itself. The problems with the show start with the sound: it is impossible to perceive the vast majority of the diverse sound elements he lists. I could only hear one thing: a blaring, dramatic Hollywood soundtrack, which turns out to have been patterned after Bernard Herrmann's film scores. It goes with footage that follows the sight lines of the gesticulating male figures and shark in Watson and the Shark, and that throws into relief the castration fears built up in this painting. The music is so loud that it completely obliterates any other sound in the same space. Although this is an obnoxious accompaniment to zooming camera movements, it is certainly in keeping with Kelley's stated aim to heighten the drama. The result, however, is we don't hear any voices singing and reciting poetry - as Kelley says they do - in the video that roams over the calm, composed female figures and hazy green areas of The Recitation. In effect, the metaphorical voicing of masculine fears of castration completely drowns out literal female voices singing women's poetry. To be fair, several other disparate sound elements are completely drowned out too. But the way Kelley has written about the involvement of these nineteenth-century female poets in anti-slavery, Indian rights and women's rights movements, and about the lesbian overtones of Dewing's The Recitation, particularly strikes me as lip service when I see that the scales are also tipped visually and spatially.

The way this installation works is such that all the focus is on the Copley. Walking into the space, the video related to Dewing's painting is projected high up and hangs above the entrance like a lackluster banner. Once inside, if you turn around and crane your neck, you see that it is a double-sided projection. However, Kelley's drawings derived from Copley's painting draw you in first. The isolated figures and details in these drawings maintain the same position and size as in the painting, functioning as partial tracings but also as outlines that Copley could have laid down before applying the paint. The seven drawings come one after the other, leading to a floor-to-ceiling vertical video projection in which the camera roams over the figures of the painting, reiterating the sight lines pointed out in the drawings. On the next wall hangs an unremarkably executed oil painting of a detail of Copley's work, the 'crotch figure' as Kelley calls it. Projected high up and across from the big projection, there is another video mainly featuring the non-action, seascape areas of Watson and the Shark. At the other end of this wall we come back to The Recitation video above the entrance and exit. The latter two videos edit in details of other works from the DIA, but I was hard-pressed to find the relationships drawn between the various paintings as fascinating has Kelley claims. They border on the logic of those awful animations that morph one historical painting into another, even if there is no morphing here. That aside, various parts of this grandiose installation clearly do not work within the whole: the lone, relatively small and seemingly silent video related to The Recitation simply can't compete for attention against the drawings, the monumental projection with its deafening soundtrack, the painting and the smaller projection, all related to Watson and the Shark .

The last straw was the addition of a few slight pubic curlicues above the shark's jaws in one of his drawings. As far as I could see, this was the only addition vis-à-vis the painting - everything else composing these drawings is either a line-for-line tracing or a subtraction from the original. Kelley himself speaks of these shark's jaws as 'an example of "vagina dentata" if ever there was one'. And he's right. So why does he beat us over the head with it after having isolated this detail? Reading his text after visiting the installation, I get the sense that, idealizing his adolescence, Kelley's strategy is to layer restatement, each layer being deliberately more unsubtle and tawdry than the previous1 - all the while brandishing the tenets of psychoanalysis and the history of painting, poetry, film and music. A fair challenge perhaps, but it would appear that he has packed it in until there is no room for thought.

- Jian-Xing Too

  1. Another example is the fact that the green atmospherics of The Recitation were filmed through a layer of green smoke.