As I enter the main gallery, there are large wooden crates, open on one side, housing videos. Otherwise, the space is dominated by four large sculptures, the most compelling of which are Mike Kelley’s Gussied Up (1992) and Louise Bourgeois’s Untitled (1996). Kelley’s is the largest, consisting of a roughly 10 x 20 foot plank made of plywood, standing on sawhorses, on top of which is full-sized furniture made of polished wood: a four poster bed, 2 chairs, one coffee table. There are also a goblet and a table clamp. Sixteen pieces of children’s clothing—knit caps, sweaters, shorts and the like—“dress” the furniture, construing the furniture legs, arms, and posts as figures.
This childlike installation, while evoking fairytales about miniature peoples, portrays an American blue-collar family whose miserable puppet show life is enacted on the stage of an improvised workbench, who would use the words “gussied up,” and whose polished wood furniture recalls a pre-capitalist country life of workmanship, old values, and old ways, like getting dressed up for church or a dance. But those values are no longer operative, if they ever were, and the furniture is clearly mass produced and probably second-hand. Now some convergence of commodification and poverty has reduced the family to the status of objects. There are no parents (no adult size clothing) and the children are stubs of wood. Parental aesthetic imperviousness, expressed in the awkward furniture arrangement, operates as a cipher for emotional neglect. And worse: one tiny jacket is tightly squeezed in the table clamp; the twisting and stretching of the little clothes over the furniture parts express torture or abuse. Interestingly, this piece excludes the stereotypical ugliness of American working class life: there are no bright colors, no T.V., no bottles of ketchup. It has a simple beauty.
The reduction of the individual to an extreme powerlessness is also the subject of Bourgeois’s Untitled, which features four life-sized stuffed dolls hanging from a black metal “tree,” a pole with four extensions, suggesting both a clothesline and the hanging-tree of U.S. racial history. The dolls too are fusions of race, class and gender references. The heads of two of the figures are small, like those of sock dolls, and black. One is dressed in a button up blue work dress, such as a servant might wear, and the other in a floral day dress that a woman of the bourgeoisie might wear to a garden party. Neither is given the agency of arms or legs. A third figure is not even a doll, but a classic black evening dress on a hanger. The fourth figure is a version of what is subtracted from the dress. Made of pale beige cloth covered with sheer nylon stockings, (with bumps and contours suggesting breasts and female genitals contained within a giant male genital) it is also a torso and what’s left of a self.
Though apparently comparable to Kelley’s wooden stub children, Bourgeois’s damaged dolls refer to a more generalized violence. Kelley’s children are still part of a family, belonging to the same furniture set, as it were, so that the work expresses connectedness (however degraded) among them. The Bourgeois figures are dismembered or butchered, and the figures are connected only in that they have all been hung out to dry. They are the visual embodiment of a statement seemingly issued from the patriarchal heart of America: whether black or white, women are pieces of meat. Put differently, in the Kelley, psychological violence is primary, the precursor of physical violence; in the Bourgeois the two are fused and indistinguishable.
In the catalog essay for The Uncanny (2004), Mike Kelley writes that “…the image of wholeness [is] only a pathetic comment on the lost utopianism of modernism. It is comparable to a kind of acting out of socially expected norms, the presentation of a false ‘true self’….”7 In presenting the true damaged self, the Bourgeois and Kelley pieces, like many sculptures in the show, are poignant because they remain infused with a desire for wholeness, with the idea of a family in the Kelley, and the idea of a sexually vital woman in an evening dress in the Bourgeois. Like the interlude dancer in choreographer Pina Bausch’s Nur Du (1996) whose body seems to attack itself in repudiation of ballet’s false gracefulness (or puppetry), these pieces show that it hurts to give a truthful account. Incompletely reconciled to fragmentation as normative, many of the works in the show seem to struggle against it.
- Mike Kelley, “Playing With Dead Things,” The Uncanny (Cologne: Verlag der buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2004), 32.↵