ESSAYS Mousse 21
by Emi Fontana
Place names in Los Angeles can sound pretty strange to someone visiting from Italy for the first time. When I arrived in the City of Angels in 1997, like all greenhorns, I got a room in a hotel on Santa Monica Beach. The next morning, dangerously ensconced behind the wheel of an economy rental car, I kept repeating the address where I was headed like a kind of mantra, but with incredulity and amusement: “North Figueroa Street”, Mike Kelley’s house. “Figueroa” is what stuck in my head, of course, since it sounds like a salacious word in Italian. Later on, I learned that this famous street—which I’d learned to call Fig for short—that cuts through the city from north to south, running for about fifty kilometers from the ocean to the mountains, owes its name to General José Figueroa, the governor of Alta California who oversaw the secularization of the missions from 1833 to 1835: separation of church and state, a good guy, in short. The Highland Park neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city. In the early days, it was settled by Native Americans and by the first pioneers; here, close to the Arroyo, which was then a rushing stream, they found better living conditions and shelter from the arid desert climate. In the Sixties, Highland Park became a Latino enclave, and is still often a theatre of gang violence. Quentin Tarantino, who grew up in LA, shot many scenes of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs here. In the late Nineties, large-scale gentrification began in the area and is still underway; the first people who began moving here were artists, attracted by the large spaces they could find at reasonable prices. Mike Kelley, another pioneer, bought a house here in the late Eighties, investing the revenues from the first, belated recognition that began to ripple around his artistic career.
When I get there after a daunting journey, I discover that guests are not received at the main entrance on Figueroa, but at the back door, which means taking a left on Annan Way; on the corner is the Optimist High School, created to serve at-risk youth. One immediately turns right into a dead-end alley, closed off by a heavy metal gate. The house is the nicest one in the neighbourhood, and is practically a fortress. You come into the backyard—the pride and joy of American suburbia—through a tiny door in the big red gate. The area out front is well-tended, a small desert garden mainly planted with cactus; the predominant colours are brick red and…“Kelley green”.
At the time of my visit, the garage was Mike’s only studio. The house has an annex that has always been dedicated to music; a few years later it became a recording and mixing studio, giving the name “Compound Annex” to the independent record label that distributes all of Kelley’s musical output. Coming through the back door, I am ushered directly into the kitchen. The interior of a California home is often shady, a dark, reassuring space where your eyes find respite from the aggressive sunlight outside. More green on the kitchen cabinets, black linoleum on the floor with white streaks in it, a few cats padding around, including a ginger one, Yeller, that immediately wins your heart. In the dining room, above the table and chairs carved out of pine—a gorgeous example of sturdy American craftsmanship—looms a large, unusual Cindy Sherman, depicting a plastic ass covered in pimples. On the other wall hang drawings on hotel stationary, signed MK, which in this case, stands for Martin Kippenberger. Before going into the living room, I get the chance to peek into the bedroom, and though it’s even darker in there, manage to glimpse a red-and-white crocheted bedspread. The living room is mostly decorated with second-hand furniture, that marvellous modernism—unpretentious and recycled—that is so common around here; on the wall across from me is a Lari Pittman from the Eighties, with rich, dense shades of brown. A massive record collection, meticulously organized, catches the eye: everything in the house conveys a sense of cleanliness and order. The bathroom has an aura of luxury that borders on kitsch, with two washbasins, ochre-coloured fake marble with golden veins, and gold-toned faucets to match. The penchant for tackiness and the fortification of the house are a legacy of the former owners, a South American family that makes their appearance in an installation by Mike Kelley from 2003, Light (Time), Space Modulator. The South Americans are not the only recycled element in this piece; its central feature is a spiral staircase from the courtyard that originally led to the garage roof. In the piece, the staircase, installed horizontally, rotates becoming a time machine; while on the wall, amid son et lumière, we see alternating projected images of the house as it was, with its previous inhabitants, as it is now, and finally, a third series that is a digital juxtaposition of the first two, in which past and present blend together in another realm of time that is psychic and imaginary. In 2005, Mike Kelley took the bourgeois leap of buying a house as an investment and a place strictly meant for living, separate from his workspace, if such a division is ever possible in an artist’s mind.
From Highland Park, you cross the bridge on York Boulevard, which turns into Monterey Road on the other side of the Arroyo; you’re no longer in the city of Los Angeles, but in tiny South Pasadena, a minuscule cluster of single-family homes, often hidden behind old, thick vegetation. Giant, shady oaks give the area a feeling of austere spirituality, and a strong smell of sage evokes the rituals of the ancient Native Americans, whose spirits, they say, find peace in the trunks of tall trees, the same oaks that later offered shelter to people like Vivekananda, the great Indian mystic who introduced Hinduism to America. From Monterey, you turn left to reach the highest hill of the little town. As the car heads up the hill, a landmark comes into sight that will become a constant reference point in the landscape all the way to our destination: the South Pasadena water tower, a funny, futuristic tank that evokes a Sixties sci-fi vision of tomorrow. The house, which was originally rather anonymous, is from the same period; its square, solid volumes are perched at the top of the hill amid a spectacular desert garden of rare cacti and succulents that have a seductive, dangerous look to them. The house was originally white on the outside, but when it changed hands, was painted a deep green (again, “Kelley green”) that drew sharp criticism from the neighbours. Now, the floor and part of the ceiling inside is made of dark wood, and the walls are brightly coloured. In the entrance, a shade of burgundy that seems almost lacquered; in the kitchen, a golden tone of sand that perfectly matches the desert landscape framed outside the window. In this room, a single picture, bought in a flea market, shows a Native American in a full-out feather headdress, beating his drum in the emptiness of some vast Southwestern desert. Among the few pieces of furniture that got the honour of moving from Fig, I notice the table and the chairs carved out of pine, and above them a hanging lamp made of antlers—fake ones, fortunately. My eyes are caught by a wall on one side of the room, almost entirely covered by vintage black-and-white photos, an unusual collection: a few snapshots of ectoplasmic beings, taken during séances; erotic images—one can recognize a Hans Bellmer; a still from the set of Tarantula showing the terrifying, hairy giant spider; a photograph by Pierre Molinier of a woman whose legs seem almost to form a swastika, echoing the shape of the spider; a few pictures by Leni Sinclair immortalizing the 1960s and 1970s in Detroit, the artist’s native city, when Black Panthers, White Panthers and the MC5 wrote a historic chapter in the American counterculture, and Mike Kelley was just in his teens.
The living room is furnished with leather sofas, armchairs, and an ottoman. A coffee table made from a sheet of glass resting on a twisted tree stump and a metal-footed, carved wooden rocking chair are fine examples of Californian design, a style somewhere between post-hippy and pre-apocalyptic. On the severe-looking dark leather sofa, a gigantic mandala of colourful stuffed animals sit enthroned, with the snout of a pink piglet at the center—and I suppose readers can guess who created it. In the late 1980s, stuffed animals became a hallmark of Mike Kelley’s work: objects for unbridled “projections”, delirious theories of critics, as well as wild fetishism of collectors. When they became a burden, the artist abandoned them as a medium after Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991-1999), then returned to them in this piece, conceived for his own home, in 2007. The living room gives onto an airy room with large windows facing north-west; this is the lightest, most feminine room in the house, where a sofa and light purple armchair—a bit worn, but with a comforting shell-like shape—invite you to take a siesta and contemplate a breathtaking view of the sunset. A long, straight hallway leads to the private wing of the house.
Two bathrooms: in the first, a square tub—partially set into the floor, with a few steps down—that is reflected by a wall of mirrors and could easily accommodate a quartet, summons up a mood straight out of Boogie Nights; I can’t help imagining it as a perfect set for Fresh Acconci (1995), the video in which Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy re-stage Vito Acconci’s performance pieces from the Sixties using the plastified actors of the contemporary porn industry. The second bathroom is smaller and more austere, with black and white tiles, and the disturbing silhouette of a black man printed on the shower curtain: Kelley confesses to me that he has a sick, inexplicable attraction for the plastic smell of new shower curtains. On the right side of the hallway is a small office with a slightly magical look to it, like a Renaissance studiolo; a horizontal window opens directly onto the luxuriant vegetation that presses against the glass and creates a fabulous sight worthy of Henri Rousseau. The room has trompe-l’oeil wallpaper depicting a library with rows of volumes, which serve as a disorienting backdrop for the real, meticulously organized books; literature and poetry, art books and catalogues have stayed in the Figueroa house, which is now used as an office. At the end of the hall is the bedroom, where I notice the same white-and-red crocheted coverlet I saw on the bed in the old house, many years ago. The room faces southwest and is not very large; it has green walls, a jute ceiling, and two Japanese prints show the erotic contortions of a couple who are strangely, and partially, dressed in Western garb. Outside, a kumquat tree peeps through the window and a relaxing burble of water flows from a stone fountain. As we head back down the dark hallway to the entrance, the Twenties-style lamp hanging from the ceiling, made of coloured glass and wrought iron, sways in a gust of wind that sweeps in through the green door. When the time comes to say goodbye, my gaze falls on a little Buddha’s hand closed in a meditation mudra, called Aakaash Mudra in Sanskrit, literally, “the space mudra”.
I asked Mike Kelley what sort of relationship he has with his two houses, and he answered that the Figueroa house is still his mental space, which is why his music and his art books have stayed there. On the other hand, during the process of renovating and furnishing the new house, Mike referred to the latter as “the sculpture”: an enclosure with a keen focus on form, meant to hold the space dedicated to daily life.
Originally published on Mousse 21 (November-December 2009)