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Art & artists

The perturbing work of Kelley, McCarthy and Pettibon

— December 2013

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

Raymond Pettibon, No Title, Captive Chains, 1978. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Raymond Pettibon.

Tilo Reifenstein reviews ‘an overdue and stimulating analysis of the three artists’ work from the 1970s to the 1990s’

Pay For Your Pleasures: Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon by Cary Levine

The label of bad-boy attitudes is commonly attached to the names of American artists Mike Kelley (1954–2012), Paul McCarthy (b.1945) and Raymond Pettibon (b.1957). Their works consistently tackle themes that verge on the transgressive and abject. McCarthy’s videos, performances and installations offer an aggressively disturbing mix of the sexual, scatological and consumable. Kelley’s quieter works often disclose their equally perturbing content only when the viewer is already deeply caught up in them. Pettibon’s drawings similarly deal with sexual and social deviance through counter-culture groups, Charles Manson, and the double standards and indiscretions of the (supposedly) conservative classes.

Cary Levine’s book Pay for Your Pleasure is the first comprehensive attempt to frame the three artists through their common political, social, and cultural sensitivity and their involvement with different music scenes.

One of Mike Kelley’s works (1988), which lends the book its title, is a corridor installation of 40 floor-to-ceiling portraits of famous Western thinkers, artists, and writers. A pithy quote by the depicted accompanies each face and extols the virtues of the uninhibited thinking mind, unbound from morality and law. The corridor leads to a self-portrait as a clown painted by John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist, was convicted of murdering 33 boys and young men in 1980. Faced with real and brutal lawlessness and amorality, the foregoing quotes are rendered problematical and the construction of social and cultural beliefs itself is questioned. Levine uses the disturbing profusion of meaning of Kelley’s work as a background to his readings of all three artists’ practices. He emphasizes that their work cannot simply be read as polemics but rather that they constantly question the viewer’s own beliefs and convictions.

Levine charts the development of each artist with an accent on alternative music scenes, and explores how their work disrupts and engages with ideas about sex and sexuality since the 1960s. The final chapter focuses on the artists’ portrayal of childhood and adolescence.

All three artists have links with the Los Angeles music scene. Raymond Pettibon’s involvement in L.A.’s punk movement is particularly telling. He briefly played bass guitar and created the logo for the band Black Flag, whose label, SST, also distributed some of his amateur magazines’ (‘ ’zines’). The impact of his involvement is perhaps most apparent in his scepticism of the pretensions of counter-cultural groups. Pettibon’s work frequently exploits punk’s and hippie culture’s claims of authenticity and radicalism and shows them as merely perpetuating different myths whose supposed subversiveness is easily absorbed into the (commercial) mainstream.

A cover for a 1981 edition of his booklet Tripping Corpse is characteristic of his critique of the two subcultures. Although targeting a punk audience, the cover professes to focus on hippie culture, even providing a false LSD tab that may be licked by the thrill-seeking reader. A concert review (for a made-up band) and a Back Flag interview (which is a satirical fake) are also advertised. Pettibon deflates the lofty ambitions of punk and hippie culture – including their stereotypical channel: the self-produced ‘fanzine’ – and announces on the first inside page why he would produce such a pamphlet: ‘In one word, money. M-O-N-E-Y.’

Levine links strands of alternative music, their attendant subcultural claims, and sexual politics with the artists’ depiction of youth culture. The work of all three exposes a perhaps not-altogether-American phenomenon, which in cyclical turns glorifies the innocence and purity of the young and simultaneously subjugates their dirty minds to the socialization that will make them into civilized members of society. In McCarthy and Kelley’s 1991 video collaboration Heidi, this contradiction is put on display in an exaggerated way. Heidi and her goatherd friend Peter violate alleged childhood purity when they engage in incestuous and voyeuristic perversities. And are disciplined by an authoritarian grandfather who reveals similarly twisted tendencies.

Kelley’s, McCarthy’s, and Pettibon’s work is often hilariously funny and though it appears frivolous, it engages with the internal contradictions of society’s standards and beliefs. Pay for Your Pleasures is an overdue and stimulating analysis of the three artists’ work from the 1970s to the 1990s. Levine’s strategy of linking the artists through the alternative music scene as well as thematically is a necessary and apt approach. Although, at times, Levine could have been less trusting in the artists’ own words, the book benefits from the author’s extensive new interviews. Levine’s reading of the work is persuasive and engaging, and only suffers when he has to absorb the hackneyed high-art/low-art debate that pollutes much of the general discussion around the artists’ work. Especially the final chapter on representation of youth offers new and interesting readings and neatly draws the previous themes together.

Pay For Your Pleasures: Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon  by Cary Levine is published by The University of Chicago Press 2013. 224 pp., 24 colour/50 mono illus. ISBN 978–0–226–02606–0


Tilo Reifenstein
Manchester Metropolitan University

Background info

Raymond Pettibon was the 2004 winner of the Bucksbaum Award. This award, created and produced by Tiffany & Co., is given every two years in recognition of an artist, chosen from those included in the Biennial, whose work demonstrates a singular combination of talent and imagination. The selected artist is considered by the jurors to have the potential to make a lasting impact on the history of American art, on the basis of the excellence of past work as well as present work in the Biennial. In addition to receiving a $100,000 grant, each Bucksbaum laureate is invited to present an exhibition at the Whitney, some time within the succeeding two years.

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