Friday, December 14, 2012


There's still time to see a powerful installation work by the late Mike Kelley at the new Perry Rubenstein Gallery space in Los Angeles...

Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites at Perry Rubenstein Gallery 
Photography: Joshua White/

I promise you, it's worth the trip.  First created in the early 1990s, "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites" is a landmark work by this artist who left such a profound influence in the wake of his death earlier this year.  The "central mass" and the surrounding "satellites" are assembled out of what must be thousands of brightly colored stuffed animals--the kind every little child loves to hug and take to bed.  The "mass" takes the shape, roughly, of a Chinese dragon--that magical, mythical, fire-breathing beast that lies at the beating heart of the universe itself.  Gathered around it like orbiting planets in a solar system, each with its own global size and color scale, the satellites hang at various heights, inviting the light touch that will set them easily in motion.  (I don't know whether this normally forbidden act is acceptable with a stuffed animal sculpture but, sorry, the toddler in me couldn't resist!)

Surrounding this soft core, twelve-part installation like motionless, insentient sentinels is a series of high-gloss fiberglass wall reliefs built in identical minimalist style, each a different monochrome, and each provided with a system that blows out a not unpleasantly pine-scented deodorant with a soft hiss at regular intervals, pervading the whole gallery with a faint aura of sterility that contrasts poignantly with the stuffed animals, many of them well used and chewed upon by the unknown hands and teeth of generations past.

Immersed in the enchanting, spectacular absurdity of this installation, our minds run off in countless associative directions.  We are, of course, in a gallery space, so this is "art"--and as such, we can't help but find a wry commentary on contemporary aesthetics, where the minimalist ethic stands guard over those childish, sand-box impulses that drive our creativity and sanitizes them with its impassive purity.  We are invited back to contemplate our childhood, our libidinal instincts, our early experience of the erotic thrill of touch, our sense of possession and propriety, our nursery protectedness.  We are invited, too, to re-experience the shadow side of childhood, and of the wounded child that survives in our adult psyche.  We may find ourselves in contemplation of our vulnerability as children--and still, today, as grown-ups in an often alienating, sometimes threatening world.

Equally, we may see in this installation a mockery of some of our cherished or unexamined cultural values: our addiction to the mass-produced commercial product--and its casual disposability; our need to sterilize and sanitize, to protect ourselves from the hidden dangers in our environment, whether real or merely imagined; our materialization of art into object of commercial value.  Or we may, on a still vaster scale, expand our thoughts to the grandeur of the universe itself, and our place in it.  There is something delightfully--and perhaps frighteningly--absurd in seeing it represented as an agglomeration of stuffed animals, the colorful playthings of small, pudgy human hands.

Or, of course, we may simply allow ourselves to be distracted, bemused, perhaps "tickled pink."  That seems appropriate.  In any event, this installation gives us good reason to regret the early death of one of our most prominent and influential West Coast artists.

(This was, by the way, my first visit to the fairly recently opened Perry Rubenstein Gallery.  It's an impressive space, and an important new addition to the growing number of galleries whose  commitment to quality is working to consolidate the international reputation of Los Angeles as an art mecca.  The gallery, located on Highland Avenue just north of Santa Monica is a bit off the beaten art path, but deserves inclusion on any enthusiast's monthly trek.  And the people there are friendly!)

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