In 3 Part Progression, Mike Kelley frames scatological imagery using a classical triptych format. With graphic black ink and brightly colored paint, Kelley illustrates archetypal psychoanalytic narratives, using their own visual idioms to satirize their fixations on the link between infancy and adult sexuality. Exhibited in 2007 at the Gagosian Gallery as one of his Hermaphrodite Drawings, this characteristic work exemplifies the multilayered complexity of all Kelley's works.
In the present example, the artist creates visual puns inspired by pop psychoanalysis. In his first frame, Kelley anthropomorphizes a shapeless, excrement-like form with a smiling face, alluding to the Freudian stage in which the child becomes fixated on his anus, transforming it into an erogenous zone. Next, he doubles the original form along a lateral axis, recalling the iconic Rorschach inkblot and simultaneously alluding to the developmental stage when gender identity is formed. In the third panel, Kelley yet-again reproduces the shape, painting it in brown and drawing it alongside a totemic structure and a phallus. His uneasy juxtapositions attack the sanctity of cultural attitudes toward childhood. By methodically elaborating its distinctive shape, Kelley shows how any arbitrary form has diverse referential potential. Brilliantly, Kelley demonstrates this by visually recreating the discipline's formal idioms, playing off their notion of slippages, sublimation and repressed imagery. According to the artist, he picks his subject matter specifically for its dysfunctional connotations, seeking to produce an artwork that you could not elevate to a comfortable, easily comprehended picture. His art refuses the Freudian theory of sublimation, in that it does not assuage uncomfortable content through its artistic form. In fact, Kelley's artistic rendering actually manages to exaggerate the uncanny tone.
As he satirizes pop psychology, Kelley experiments with caricature as a genre. For Kelley, caricature was not merely a series of formal attributes, but a schema that governed much of his art and enabled him to also probe the boundaries between abstraction, representation, and meaning. In 3 Part Progression, Kelley shows that the genre's characteristic exaggeration or simplification links it to the same duality within modern abstract art. Both abstract expressionist and minimalist painting find their double origin in essentialism: according to the artist, "Modernism may have supposed itself above caricature, but it progressed unavoidably into what it as trying to avoid" (M. Kelley quoted in J.C. Welchman, I. Graw, A. Vidler, Mike Kelley, London, 1999).