Video Mutants: Booby call

Lost in bizarre pop idolatry with artist Mike Kelley
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kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Who can bring together cast-off crocheted critters and KISS? Early '70s Ann Arbor, Mich., art noise and the Whitney Biennial? Vampires toiling in cubicles and Sonic Youth's 1992 album Dirty (DGC)? Mike Kelley, man, can.

Ouch — the allusions get bumpy after almost three hours of mind-altering video candy. The medium may be the favored art material of the moment, but it's only one weapon at the disposal of the cofounder of Destroy All Monsters — the Stooges' weirder kissing cousins — and the Dirty cover artist. Kelley's work can be found in major museum collections around the world, and he's collaborated on video pieces with artists like Paul McCarthy in the past, but Day Is Done, which screens Jan. 31 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is his first feature, revamped as a narrative-ish stream from the installation version shown in 2005 at Gagosian Gallery in New York City.

Religious icons, '80s modern dancers, lousy Nazi rappers, bad comedians, and spacey witches and vampires dance, sing, and hold forth throughout the video musical's 32 chapters, augmented by a Kelley-written soundtrack that encompasses gospel and techno, light pop and monkish drone. Say I'm lost in pop idolatry, but the most wonderfully bizarre moment in this lengthy bizarre wonder arrives during a painful singles mixer furnished with irksome chair-desks as the differences among the assembled women — two African Americans, a white lost Hee Haw extra, a rocker in full KISS makeup, and a gloomy witch — are highlighted by portraits of their respective all-American idols: Kobe Bryant, R. Kelly, Garth Brooks, Gene Simmons, and Brandon Lee, all painted with clunky, thrift store–style passion. After getting an, erm, tongue lashing from the KISS girl for nattering about the largeness of some big stuffed bananas, the hick chick is forced to defend her painting of Brooks staring at a bare breast (in reality painted by Kelley). "But it ain't even my tit — it's my momma's," the backwoods boob protests as the KISS fan sneers with all of Detroit Rock City's blood-spitting wrath. "Gosh, I hope Garth don't go for my momma and not for me!"

The rejoinder "That bitch is nuts!" might be a punch line to a half-cocked sitcom, but it's also the perfect response to the old biddy dressing down a would-be school pageant Madonna for her posture or the blood-drenched hawker of a putf8um MasterCard that supports the "educational complex" — or any other denizen of Kelley's jet-black-humored, bleakly antic fun house.

Looking back at the video now, however, Kelley can still picture changes to Day Is Done — each chapter a live-action re-creation of an extracurricular activity photo culled from a high school yearbook. For instance, the many students and office workers dressed as depressed vampires and gleeful witches seem a bit too trendy today, even for a man with a taste for monsters. "If I thought about it more, I would have done something less ... au courant, I guess," Kelley drawls over the phone from his Los Angeles home. Does he still glimpse kids in full goth regalia? A heavy sigh, then, "Yeah. Also, it's kind of gone into the art world. A lot of gothy art is being made."

A self-described "maximalist" who has made noise for years as part of Destroy All Monsters — a forerunner of experimentalists here and abroad — and later on his own, the man once pegged as a major proponent of installation-oriented "clusterfuck aesthetics" is clearly driven to strike out in fresh directions all the time.

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