Born in 1985, Los Angeles-based artist Christina Quarles’s paintings and drawings are informed by what she considers her daily experience with ambiguity. As a biracial, queer, cis-woman, Quarles seeks to dismantle assumptions of our fixed subjectivity through images that contend with the disorganized body in a state of excess. In the below excerpt, Quarles reminisces about the profound impact of Kelley’s stuffed animal sculptures on her very young (and later, as her emerging painter) self, the influence of Kelley’s use of painting as conceptual tool, and the delightful deceptions of trompe l’oeil.
I first encountered Mike Kelley’s work as a young child—I want to say around eight? I was old enough to have wandered off from my family on one of our regular visits to LACMA, and also old enough to have read the museum’s sign alerting visitors that the following rooms would contain work that might not be appropriate for young viewers, and that all children should be accompanied by an adult. I was old enough to know that this sign was meant to keep kids like me from entering those rooms, which of course meant I would absolutely be sneaking in to see what was in them. But I was still young enough that this initial warning sign—in a museum, of all places—and the work that followed, would forever shape my understanding of art.
It was a strange thing to walk through this threshold, which would anoint me as a member of the mature art-viewing public, only to find myself confronted with a room full of stuffed animals. Forget Warhol’s Brillo Boxes or Duchamp’s urinal—being eight years old and reading a sign that discourages young viewers from entering a room full of toys will make you question everything you thought you knew about what constitutes a work of art. If store-bought toys could be art, and items from childhood could be seen as adult content, then I would have to rethink everything I thought I knew about art (and adulthood, for that matter).
More than twenty-five years later, I now find myself reflecting on Mike Kelley, the painter. In the context of his larger practice, I can’t help but assume that he used painting as he used any other readymade. Kelley was able to turn the expectations of a material on its head. So, by the same measure that he elevated kitschy, lowbrow, store-bought materials to the status of art objects, he was also able to drag the lofty claims of Painting-with-a-capital-P back down to earth.
I am indebted to artists like Mike Kelley who have used the medium toward a conceptual, rather than a purely formal, end.
For me, painting is a fascinating conceptual medium. I find the baggage that comes along with it—the unspoken but highly regulated rules and historical contexts that structure the legibility, taste, and value of a painting—to be a useful medium for unpacking identity and what it is to live in a body often shaped by a similar structure of unspoken, but highly regulated, rules of legibility. It can be tricky to underscore the conceptual potential of painting within a painting, particularly within paintings such as mine, which are representational and figurative, so I am indebted to artists like Mike Kelley who have used the medium toward a conceptual, rather than a purely formal, end.
I have always been drawn to trompe l’oeil and use it in my own work. Therefore, I want to take a moment to reflect on Mike Kelley’s Wood Grain Paintings. Trompe l’oeil in the context of Mike Kelley is such a beautifully succinct call for us to recon-sider the line that distinguishes art from craft, high from low, and the singular genius who can achieve painterly illusion from the trained artisan who can achieve a theatrical trick. For me, the Wood Grain Paintings double down on what I love about Mike Kelley, because the thing that draws me to the one is the same thing that draws me to the other: a declaration of a deception. In Kelley’s practice there is a through-line of contradiction so plainly asserted that it becomes tragically funny, and I find myself just as mysteriously immersed as that eight-year-old kid encountering his work for the first time.
Mike Kelley’s singular approach to painting as a conceptual medium is presented in ‘Timeless Painting’, on view at Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street, 12 November 2019 – 25 January 2020.
Organized in collaboration with the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, the exhibition is accompanied by the release of ‘Mike Kelley: Timeless Painting’ from Hauser & Wirth Publishers.