On a recent visit to Ann Greene Kelly’s Los Angeles studio, she showed me a selection of plastic mugs in various sizes and colors, at least one comically oversized. She was thinking about integrating one into a sculpture in progress composed of car tires and a metal folding chair, both of which are common elements in her work. The mug would be a new feature, inspired, she said, by paintings of coffee cups by Elizabeth Murray.
Murray is an unexpected reference: Kelly’s sculptures — in which she manipulates essential everyday objects into novel forms — are more often likened to works by Robert Gober and Franz West, sculptors who, respectively, unsettle the quotidian and revivify the cheap or disposable. Despite some formal and thematic affinities, Kelly’s work is distinct from that of any of these artists. Over the past decade, the New York-born, Los Angeles-based artist has produced a body of semi-abstract sculpture that acknowledges its precedents but carries them in a direction that is all the artist’s own.
Yet Murray’s paintings share with Kelly’s work a dual emphasis, on the formal and narrative possibilities of familiar objects. In Murray’s “Jazz” (2001), for instance, a mug cracked in two is brought — painfully or ecstatically — to a state of sentience by its fragmentation. In Kelly’s sculptures, manmade objects morph into new or composite forms that seem to verge on organic.
Kelly’s work has gained deserved attention in recent years. In 2019 she had a second solo show at Chapter NY and her first at Michael Benevento in Los Angeles; this spring her sculptures and drawings are featured in a solo show at the ICA in LA; and later in 2020 her work will be seen in Made in L.A. 2020 at the Huntington Art Museum.
The objects to which she repeatedly returns — folding or plastic chairs, mattresses, car doors and tires — reflect basic biological and social needs: to sit, to sleep, to get from one place to another. Furniture intrigues Kelly because it conforms to the body; at the same time, the implied body is often excluded by furniture that has been estranged from its function and seemingly evolved into its own elemental anatomy.
“Untitled (small circular bench)” (2017) is emblematic. The sculpture is composed of child-sized plastic chairs arranged in a ring formation and melded into a single entity, its surface covered in a tile or brick pattern made of plaster and colored pencil. The “bench” is rendered non-functional by its shape. The title is a kind of punchline commenting on the readymade as a commodity simply rerouted from one function to another, but the chairs and surface pattern allude to a more intimate and more unsettling experience, of a domestic sphere that is closed to the viewer.
While furniture, clothing, and car parts are general signifiers both of daily life and the relationship between the body and the surrounding world, Kelly uses the formal and phenomenological properties of her materials to evoke what is unseen or only glimpsed: recesses, missing parts, implied but inaccessible interiors.
For “Front Door Floral Sheet” (2019), in her 2019 Chapter NY show, Kelly carved a recess in a car door, laid flat on the floor, and filled it with a plaster cast of two tiled drains. The orientation allowed viewers to look down at the drains, but not into them; this detail added an element of mystery to a work whose incongruous surfaces and collision of reality and illusion were already inflected by Surrealism. (From a certain perspective, the drains could be two eyes, placed directly below the car window.)
The drain is one of Kelly’s recurring motifs. It initiates a dialogue with Gober’s psychologically loaded works, but Kelly’s drains are more mysterious than disquieting, and double as material reminders of the interplay between positive and negative space in sculpture. “Untitled” (2019), included in the ICA show and last year’s Michael Benevento show, is comprised of a round mattress (which Kelly customized from a standard rectangular one) atop a round plaster slab with a groove around its edge. An onyx fountain drain covered in wire mesh is embedded in the center of the mattress. The contrasting textures (hard, soft, slick, metallic) are complemented by the repetition of the circle. Formally, the sculpture emphasizes how discrete elements form a whole not simply through agreement, but also through tension.
Kelly’s found objects remain recognizable enough to invite any number of narrative associations. In “Untitled,” the mattress and drain bear on bodily functions, cleanliness, and public and private spaces. An opening at the center, about the size of a peephole, could be an oblique reference to the infamous peephole in Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” (1946-66), but nothing is visible in Kelly’s work; instead of unveiling hidden realms to voyeuristic desire, the sculpture forecloses on the gaze, and keeps its secrets in the dark.
Kelly’s sculptures slip between formal and symbolic registers, in a perpetual state of becoming Other. In this way they suggest not just the human body, but the complexity of the human subject. For another untitled 2019 work, she carved two black tire grooves into a queen-sized pink mattress. The sculpture’s scale and orientation — slumped against the wall in her Michael Benevento show — mimicked Minimalist monoliths, but the object’s slackness and wear-and-tear traded Minimalism’s impermeable forms for something more porous and vulnerable.
The encounter between a bed and car is fraught with a sense of violation, of a supremely personal and private space invaded by an outside force — to say nothing of the violence of a roughly 70-pound object run over by one weighing more than a ton. If the mattress symbolizes a human body, it is general enough to reflect any viewer’s individual experience of being tread upon, or of rising up off the floor.
Yet if the sculpture’s obvious art historical precedents range from Minimalism to Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, its genealogy also encompasses, for instance, Meret Oppenheim’s refashioning of Surrealist strategies to refute socially prescribed women’s roles.
A series of sculptures composed of stacked bisected tires are more overtly narrative than the mattress works, but they share the former’s layering of formal and social relations. White plaster, carved to resemble a tiled wall, coats the interiors of two tire stacks facing each other in an untitled work the artist made in 2019; with their window-like cutouts, the stacks allude to apartment buildings. Kelly wryly transforms junkyard objects into a miniature “home” whose exterior makes the illusionism all too clear. (For another untitled stacked-tire sculpture from 2020, made for the ICA show, fabric stiffened with plaster cascades down a single stack of tire halves, removing the interior from public view.)
Kelly’s colored-pencil drawings include many of the same everyday items and motifs as her sculptures, such as tires, clothing, chairs, and drains, but her flat, all-over compositions reduce these to biomorphic forms and patterns. In “Still Life Studio Door” (2019), for example, a glass, apple, and mesh basket on a table reiterate the table’s round surface, while shapes within shapes (as in the basket’s weave) echo a brick wall, metal door, and plastic chair.
Kelly’s drawings cast a different light on her sculptures by foregrounding the artist’s fascination with pattern, borne out by the latter’s repeated designs and forms, but both mediums are guided by her intuitive relationship with materials. Implicit in her exploration of form is a sense of the material’s own logic and rhythm.
Among the more curious works in Kelly’s studio when I visited was a sardine tin housing various items embedded in plaster, almost like a relief map of an unknown place. If Elizabeth Murray’s coffee cups announce their freedom from human rule, Kelly’s artworks insinuate that they have their own secrets. They coax out the enigma within the familiar.
Ann Greene Kelly is currently on view virtually at the ICA LA (1717 East 7th Street, Los Angeles, California). Made in LA 2020 takes place at the Huntington (1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, California) and the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California) from July 19, 2020 to January 3, 2021.