Foundation News

Mike Kelley’s High School Caricatures Wreak Havoc

June 19th, 2024

In the black and white source photograph, which is displayed in a framed diptych alongside the artist’s full-colour staged re-creation, two students are inexplicably costumed. Clad in dungaree overalls, a grinning teenage girl with long blonde pigtails and painted-on freckles proudly clutches two giant stuffed bananas – the overtly phallic punctum that likely caught Kelley’s eye. Behind her is a brunette in a Kiss t-shirt and the band’s signature face paint. Kelley was endlessly fascinated by the ways in which humans performatively explore hidden facets of their identity through role play, so it is no surprise this pair are the protagonists of his imagined scenario.

The main three-channel video is projected onto screens that extend from a portable wall draped with a plastic-covered stage curtain. Mounted atop a pair of folding tables, and behind three stacks of plastic red cups, are glossy photographs of the video’s junk-food spread. The inclusion of actual and represented elements from the video puzzles our sense of the real and the staged, much like the ‘reality’ television shows the work appears modelled on. A canned soundtrack of hoots and groans, however, locates Singles’ Mixer closer to sketch comedy or a tabloid chat show. Immediately dispensing with niceties, the attendees – dressed as witches and goths or, as with four Black women, not in costume – launch into a bitter argument, structured around blatant race- and class-based tropes, over ‘the ideal man’. The candidates, as depicted in student-level paintings brought to the event as if for an art crit, are Kobe Bryant, Garth Brooks, R. Kelly, Brandon Lee (as The Crow) and Gene Simmons. The only actual guy in attendance, a proto-incel computer nerd, watches in goofy pleasure as the debate boils over into a catfight between the ‘hillbilly’ and the Kiss fan. Hung salon-style on the wood-panelled back side of the curtained wall opposite a looping excerpt of the climactic battle, the faux-naïf portraits are made to witness the chaos they have wrought.

Kelley’s sometimes problematic caricatures simultaneously perform and undermine their own stereotypes. The metalhead is also the prudish voice of reason and high culture who doesn’t appreciate ‘deviant sexual metaphors’. (She makes an exception for Simmons’s tongue, ‘an organ of oral artistry’.) Pretentiously proclaiming the ‘beauty of the mind’, she delivers, in the first of the video’s two monologues, an incantation to the ‘high gods of wisdom and glory’. Directly addressing the audience, the hillbilly responds with a convoluted campfire tale of a ‘long gone race of folks’ residing inside a tiny bubble in a primordial cesspool. ‘Proud things’, she warns us, should be humbler.

Viewed now, as the US spirals into the maelstrom of yet another contentious election, Singles’ Mixer seems like a warning of what happens when people stubbornly refuse to engage in a productive dialogue with their perceived opponents. Perhaps it should be screened every four years.

Mike Kelley’s ‘Singles’ Mixer’, is on view at the Brant Foundation, New York, until 29 June