Sex to Sexty, among the most salacious and vulgar magazines of its time, Mike Kelley's collection of ribald sexual humor illustrated by the American hillbilly artist Pierre Davis, forms the material from which Kelley creates one of the most original works in his oeuvre. Confronting what the artists describes as "repressed memory syndrome," the series Missing Time Color Exercise is a wry re-imagining of the artist's early life, a perverse exercise in minimalist seriality, color theory, and lowbrow frivolity. A cacophony of popular culture, psychic excavation, and artistic representation, this series is foundational for Kelley's calling-up of childhood experiences, locations, and tactile memories, in which he recycles past experiences in an obsessive, if absurd, effort to master what he considers past traumas, sublimated over time, yet still lurking in his unconscious.
Missing Time Color Exercise (reversed) No. 5 (Resonating Stone Walls) is a rollicking ride through Kelley's teenage collection of Sex at Sexty, a work comprised of thirty-two large panels, each containing successive issues of this magazine. The surfaces are therefore three-dimensional-each issue framed in wood and Plexiglas, and here followed by faux stone siding the width of four panels. In minimalist grid style, the Plexiglas-covered magazines are arranged in mosaic-like fashion, contiguous, but for their frames create discrete freeze-frame slides. In this spectacular version, the run of the magazine is numbered 139 through 170, surging headlong into faux stone panelling. While in other versions, missing issues are replaced by colored panels, which parody his early lessons in color theory (for example, Albers' "Interaction of Color"), here that theory, part of what Kelley styles his "originating trauma which was my student training [as an artist]" (M. Kelley, interview for Art21, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/kelley/clip1.html) has run its course. No longer constrained to meticulously replicate the exercise in which he, student-like, extracted complementary hues, of neighboring covers, here Kelley's ribald metaphor explodes in dizzying opticality.
Oppositional in intent, Kelley's work draws from the years spent as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, where "perversions of Hoffmaneque compositional principles" were foisted on students indiscriminately. Kelley's early interest in performance, installation, painting, sculpture, literature and music has made him one of the most significant artists working today, developing a transgressive approach to artmaking far from the "perverted" academic style then in vogue. Kelley works with his own biography, assembling objects from his past and investigating the urge to collect, categorize, and control the myriad stimuli of commodity culture. This teenage collection of magazines, Sex to Sexty, is a prime example of this autobiographical project. Combining traditional materials with non-art objects, such as magazines, stuffed toys, puppets, wax figures, Kelley blurs the boundaries between art and object, between psychic interiority and aesthetic expression, and between repression and memory.
Missing Time Color Exercise (reversed) No. 5 (Resonating Stone Walls) not only explodes traditional art categories and genres, it underscores the artist's exploration of materials as ritual, the methodical repetition of action, the hording of objects and its opposite, spectacularization and display. Associated with Freudian psychology, the excavation of repressed trauma, the minimalist repetition of the grid format, also recalls the endless formation of Judd's geometry or Carl Andre's infinite gridded floor pieces. Using low forms of culture, the pornographic publication in this instance, the title of this work also speaks to Kelley's keen interest in descriptive display. Although language is decomposed in haphazard style, the words themselves are "mouthfuls" with meaning. When asked if titles are important, Kelley responds, "They're trying to be clear, trying to say what it is, but at the same time they reveal aesthetic clashes or their wordiness gets to the point of incomprehensibility When you say it, it's hard to take it in; it's a mouthful of words. But it's not meaningless-that's what it is" (M. Kelley, ibid.). Like the artworks themselves, Kelley's verbal metaphors rush out in a stream of consciousness, as the artwork itself mirrors its histrionics. While clear and powerful, Missing Time Color Exercise (reversed) No. 5 (Resonating Stone Walls) functions as a lost layer of memory, a thing eternally recurring, an analogue for the larger assemblage of life's abuses and its delights, an experience Kelley excavates here for our delectation.