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Philippe Vergne discusses Mike Kelley’s Four Part Butter-Scene N'Ganga (1997)

Philippe Vergne, September 1999
Mike Kelley was a teacher in MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art and Design] a few years ago. I choose him because for me it makes sense to show Mike Kelley's work also in relation with Paul Thek because a few years ago, Mike Kelley was one of the first artists to go back to Paul Thek's work and write about the work again and almost pull the work out of the darkness. I like Mike Kelley a lot, first, because he, I think, is offering to the American orthodoxy an option because he's coming from Los Angeles and, for years, the headquarters of the art scene was New York, and since a few years, we see it at Los Angeles. So, artists are living in Los Angeles such as Paul McCarthy, Larry Pittman, Charles Ray, who is also in the gallery. This Los Angeles scene might become one of the most dynamic scenes in America.

I choose this piece because I think this piece echoes in a very nice way what Kara Walker, David Hammons, and Paul Thek are addressing in their work. It's an installation. It's called Four Part N'Ganga [Four Part Butter-Scene N'Ganga]. ... It's very difficult to say. It's addressing something which is related to voodoo, trance, another culture something which is linked to the African-American culture. It is a stew, like a painting stew into the four pots which are hanging. So there is also a way, even if you look at the first painting we've seen, the Otto Muehl, you can see that Mike Kelley is making not fun but dealing with the history of painting, painting as a soup with also this kind of irony, exoticism. It's also a way for him, I think, to exorcise part of the American history. All these pieces are also linked to the history, I think, of the way the Native American was represented through the Land-o'-Lakes butter boxes, with the Native American woman sitting which he explained to me that when he was a kid, he was folding the butter box in such a way that the knee of the woman became her breast and it was for him one of the first erotical experiences he could have.

Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center