Within every generation of groundbreaking artistic nonconformists, there are perhaps one or two individuals who, in their truly innovative reappraisal of and approach to artmaking, effectively redefine the way the world considers Contemporary art: Mike Kelley is one such artist. A true shape-shifting maverick, Kelley’s radical and riotously brilliant oeuvre defies categorization, dexterously oscillating between medium, moment, and mode in a deeply resonant – and darkly unsettling – examination of the unplumbed depths of the American cultural psyche. Presenting a searing double-vision of the artist’s own image, Alphabet and Bee-Beard is a singular testament to the intensity with which Kelley views his own complex role as artist. Executed in 1985, this rare double self-portrait marks the pivotal early moment directly preceding the artist’s sensational ascent to critical acclaim: that same year, Kelley’s work was included in the Whitney Biennial, a hallmark moment in the twenty-one-year-old artist’s burgeoning career and the first of eight times he would be included over his life. Recognized as a seminal example of the artist’s early output, Alphabet and Bee-Beard was notably included in the 1993 retrospective Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes, which traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum in New York, and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and, most recently, the widely acclaimed posthumous retrospective Mike Kelley, organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, MoMA PS1, New York, and MoCA, Los Angeles in 2012-2014. Held in the same prestigious private collection for over three decades, Alphabet and Bee-Beard emerges today as a testament to both the piercing vision and radical stylistic innovation which have made Kelley one of the most influential artists of the last quarter century. Achieving a rapt psychic unease within acute stylistic precision, the dual upturned faces of the present works are the ultimate embodiment of Kelley’s artistic project: to face head-on the power, pain, and pathos inherent to the practice of artmaking today. Here, the artist captures the psychic complexity ensconced within his own visage, creating a dual mirror into the depths of his self.
In their stark monochrome, exacting precision, and emphatic duality, Alphabet and Bee-Beard confronts the viewer with the full, unfiltered force of Kelley’s magnetic visual language. Executed in black acrylic on two dramatically scaled sheets of white paper, the dual self-portraits are powerfully reminiscent of comic book illustrations, quintessentially capturing the artist’s career-long examination of American youth culture. Growing up in Detroit, Kelley was fascinated by the many dissident and alternative subcultures lurking in Middle America; one scholar describes: “In Kelley’s work, a formidably sophisticated analytical apparatus is held at the fraught emotional pitch of childhood and adolescence…the utilization of a certain frequency of energy to draw out, scrutinize, illuminate, and flay the desperation at the root of American culture.” (Holly Myers, “Learning from Mike Kelley,” The Brooklyn Rail, October 2014, n.p.) The artist himself cites the work of Steve Ditko, the famed artist behind the original Spider Man comics of the 1950s and 60s, as a crucial influence, praising his work as the most austere and ‘illustrational’ of graphic stylists. Yet this invocation of comic-book illustration – a cultural mode primarily associated with mainstream popular culture and straightforward narrative legibility—is offset by the extraordinary formal intricacy and thematic complexity of Alphabet and Bee-Beard; standing before the two works, the viewer’s experience is one of fascinating cognitive dissonance, as he or she attempts to read an image that presents stylistic clarity but defies clear transcription. Reflecting upon the allure of this graphic style, Kelley notes: “That form of visual communication isn’t limited to popular culture. The mode of illustration utilized in comic books is the same as that used in dictionaries or technical manuals… I was simply trying to use a generic mode of illustration and work against its conventional, transparent reading.” (The artist quoted in John C. Welchman, Mike Kelley, London, 1999, p.15) Indeed, despite their two-dimensionality, Kelley’s modifications to his own image in Alphabet and Bee-Beard produce a corporeal anxiety for the viewer that is as acute as any of his varied performance or sculpture pieces, and distinctly at odds with their immediate presentation as illustrational graphics. Signaling the importance of Alphabet and Bee-Beard, among other key examples of the artist’s early paintings on paper, Kelley refers to them not as drawings, but as ‘paintings’ that are ‘not about paint.’ Kelley describes: “My main interest in drawing is that it has the quality of seeming informational, and there is an absence in it of conspicuous materiality. This simplicity gives drawings an air of ‘truth.’ My work adopts the standard black and white illustrational style, a style almost invisible in itself. In this way any sort of image may be depicted without the question of stylistic continuity becoming an issue. Images pictured in this way give up all the autonomy, all sense of self-worth, and become merely representations – carriers of meaning.” (The artist quoted in “Drawings Now, and Then,” Whitewalls 13, Chicago, Spring 1986, p. 40) Within an enigmatic oeuvre of provocative performances and intricate sculptural installations, Alphabet and Bee-Beard is among the most succinct and straightforward of Kelley’s visual statements: a compelling presentation of the artist himself as legible signifier.
In Kelley’s drawings, perhaps more than in any other example from his oeuvre, the specificity of visual language and of linguistic discourse overlap in a powerful examination of postmodern artistic identity. Within the dual images of the present work, the artist is simultaneously source and subject, divinity and supplicant, eruptive and dissolute; while the phrases ‘YAK YAK YAK’ and ‘NAG NAG NAG’ explode outward from the swarming insects of Bee-Beard, the upturned face of Alphabet sinks inward to liquefy, letter by letter, before our eyes. Describing the nuanced centrality of linguistic meaning within his practice, Kelley notes: “For many artists of my generation there was a tendency to think of art as a visual analogue to the written word – but it’s not that simple. Written, spoken or read language operates in one manner and visual language operates in another. It has to do with tactility, materiality, presence – all the other carriers of meaning… There is a very complex relationship between visual and verbal language. It’s the resonance between these two elements that makes a complex artwork.” (The artist quoted in John C. Welchman, Mike Kelley, London, 1999, p. 32) Nowhere is that complexity more profoundly resonant than in Alphabet and Bee-Beard, as the artist activates his own image as the visual and corporeal manifestation of linguistic meaning. Speaking in terms highly reminiscent of the present work, Kelley describes: “My early paintings were never discussed as paintings because they were black and white and they were on paper…They played with the equivalence of the letter form and the pictograph as carriers of meaning; their meaning was produced in the space between those two functions.” (The artist quoted in Ibid., p. 32) Since his tragic death in early 2012, Kelley’s influential body of work has been widely re-examined and acclaimed for its lasting impact on Conceptual art. Executed in the pivotal beginnings of his extraordinary practice, Alphabet and Bee-Beard serves as the singular embodiment of the goal at the very heart of Kelley’s practice: to challenge the viewer’s dominant understanding of how art and artist can, and should function in the creation of meaning.
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