While the bold symbolism of Cave Painting evokes the semiotic complexity of Adolph Gottlieb’s Pictographs, the shapes in Kelley’s painting are enigmatically diverse, ranging from biomorphic forms to hieroglyphic symbols that ultimately evade any attempt at straightforward narrative interpretation. Within the mix of abstracted lines and patterns, the viewer can make out the silhouettes of giant lizards and cartoonish plants, preempting the fascination with stuffed animals and toys that would manifest in Kelley’s later work. With the title Cave Painting, however, the artist signifies an intense conceptual confrontation hidden below his bold forms; exemplifying his characteristic mixing of high- and low-brow cultural references, the work directly alludes to “Plato’s Cave,” one of the most significant philosophical allegories of Western literary history. In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato’s mentor, Socrates, describes a group of prehistoric humans who live out their lives in a dark cave, watching the flickering play of light on the cave walls and, in their ignorance, believing those shadows to be reality. Within the allegory, the philosopher is the inspired individual who, with the wisdom of education, breaks free from the cave and comes to understand that life within was not reality but an inverted illusion, a flickering world of dreams and myths.
Monumental and magnificent, Cave Painting looms above the viewer as the physical embodiment of Plato’s Cave; the striking white lines of the varied forms leap forward from the monochromatic black background, creating the electrifying sensation of multidimensional movement. Standing before the enormous composition, the viewer’s gaze darts from form to form, entranced by the visual interplay of textures, lines, shapes, and patterns that vibrate before us. By rendering the shadowy wall of the cave with a rich symbolism and fascinating complexity, Kelley subverts the indoctrination of Plato’s narrative. Instead, Cave Painting privileges the dream-like realm of illusion and the unconscious over that of cognitive reality, signaling the inventive and transgressive aversion to traditional artistic modes that would shape Kelley’s radical career. As Jose Lebrero Stals remarked, “In a manner far different from our central narratives of the interplay of modernism and mass culture, Kelley's work forced a confrontation between the avant-garde and underground culture, a barely understood legacy of his oeuvre with which we will long have to grapple.” (Jose Lebrero Stals, “Dragging Oneself Over the Threshold of the Exhibition,” in Exh. Cat., Barcelona, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Mike Kelley: 1985-1996, 1997, p. 17)
Radical in thought and execution, Kelley oscillated between installation and performance art with an astounding plurality, defying containment within a specific practice. Visually striking and conceptually astounding, Cave Painting operates as an early declaration of Kelley’s singular reappraisal of the modern and postmodern narratives of Western art; the artist would return to this theme again the following year in his iconic work Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile, an innovative immersive installation that asked viewers to enter through a darkened doorway. The appeal of Kelley’s furtive, subterranean world is best articulated by the late artist himself: “Let's go down into the chapel of my basement—the shadowed domain of the tinkering genius. [T]hat which lies on the surface is often not of the same material as that which lies below it." (Mike Kelley, “Urban Gothic,” (1985) in Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism, 2002, p. 9)
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