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It begins with a somber-seeming wall text and ends with a countrified punk dissolving his grandmother in lye. If you’re looking for highbrow and refined, this is not it: Mike Kelley’s “Reconstructed History,” a 50-part series on view atSkarstedtin Chelsea through October 25, is as rude and ill-mannered as the explosive flatulence that is one of its many subjects. (Also popular: Bestiality; comically enormous penises; various configurations of oral sex involving comically enormous penises; Benjamin Franklin appearing to sign a treaty with his own comically enormous penis; etc.)
The works are all small found images, most of them depicting key moments in American history, centered on sheets of graph paper, and defaced by Kelley with a pen. Those defacements tend toward the sort made by hormonal young men on bathroom walls or subway advertisements: Boobs, dicks, balls, all those basic anatomies sketched with puerile glee. Both the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building gain a pair of hairy testicles; a scene with Lewis and Clark degrades into the scatological. History’s players turn out to be little more than libidinal brutes, groping and poking and smoking weed.
It is, of course, impossible to divorce this body of work from Kelley’s larger oeuvre, not to mention his untimely end. (What happened between these exuberant dick jokes and the artist’s suicide in 2012?) Kelley’s work was so often obsessed with the troubled terrain of childhood, and here he’s the bored high-school student mucking up his textbook in the back row. Somehow, it doesn’t come across as unpatriotic, even — just disdainful of the pomp and circumstance that attaches to the story we tell about ourselves and our investment in this granfalloon we call the United States. (Kudos to Skarstedt for having the guts to open the exhibition on September 11, even if it was an accident of scheduling. The gallery also has plans to republish the series in book form — the original artist’s book, published in 1990, can be purchased for $6,000 — which is good news. But maybe don’t buy it for your grandmother.) Silly as “Reconstructed History” can seem, it’s strangely affecting, and not just because of the fate of its creator. Our forefathers barf on the Declaration of Independence, the American eagle barks “Bite It,” and the self-seriousness of both the nation and the art world is mercifully punctured, one cartoon phallus at a time.
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