Mike Cloud characterizes his work as systematic painting, yet it looks more like the product of obsessive thrift store bricolage than the dry, inert products one usually associates with that term. In the recent work on display in “Agreement & Subjectivity” at Max Protetch, he puts the techniques of artistic and commercial screenprinting through a conceptual wringer, resulting in pieces that evoke the splatter and raggedness of Oldenberg’s soft sculptures or Rauschenberg’s Bed at the same time they stir up a desire to create wistful or haunting narratives explaining their odd symbolic flourishes.
The show consists of two interlocked parts. Roughly half of the gallery is hung with puffy, irregularly-shaped wall pieces, part cushion and part quilt, made of children’s clothes with images of kid-friendly characters such as Tinkerbell and Batman. Shirts, pants and socks are sewn onto scraps of canvas; these are then trimmed, stitched together into irregular clusters four to six feet wide, given a fabric backing and stuffed. The result is a group of chaotic padded patchworks that look like either the creation of a bored but imaginative child with a surplus of clothes and no parental supervision, or the product of a madman trying to tell a story in a secret language of corporate mascots.
Presented opposite these puffy wall hangings is a set of crude printing screens made of plastic sheeting stretched over wood frames roughly three feet square. Cloud’s printing method involves painting a large, colorful, childlike image (a bear, a bunny, a race car) onto the plastic and then pressing it against one of the already-stuffed quilts. A smeary transfer occurs, partially obscuring the clothing beneath.
The overprinted images relate to the surfaces below, as in the pressing of a painting titled Iron Man Flying against a quilt that includes a pair of Iron Man briefs. It is possible in some cases to look across the gallery and match the painted images from screen to cloth, but some of the imprints are so blurred that it’s not always easy, especially on a few pieces where the picture has been doubled by folding the quilt while the paint was still wet.
On one level, the show seems to be making a comment on high art’s growing reliance on pop tropes and mass-media imagery; the presentation in a side room of a set of collages Cloud created from Annie Leibovitz photos supports such an interpretation. Yet this idea quickly gets lost behind the disconcerting creepiness of the works, and whimsy and madness seem to reign in close succession. Childhood imagery and smeared paint carry a strong emotional charge, and the exuberance and playfulness of youth coexist in these objects with a potentially ugly nostalgia and hint of obsession. Knowing they were made by an adult only adds to the discomfort. One wants to read a story into them, though it’s unclear whether it should be set to a cute ditty about a summer camp art project run amuck or a slow, sad dirge on dead dreams and lost hope.