East End? It’s Only Beginning! At Last, the Hamptons Is Attracting Edgy Art to Match Its Glitzy Collectors

Forget the beach—get thee to a gallery

It is difficult to look at these late-period works by Kelley and not be reminded of his suicide in January. Kandor is a funny reference, the kind of lowbrow subject that Kelley mined for most of his career, both memorializing it and bringing out its menacing side. In that darkened gallery, Kandor becomes a sort of fantastical, Wagnerian tragic symbol: a once-great city, shrunken by a villain, which our hero must rescue from his destroyed home planet, gazing at it in his Fortress of Solitude and unsure of how to restore it. The work is never done; there is always more to do.

This retrospective could have easily fit in at MoMA or the Whitney, but the show arrived at Watermill through a conversation between its curator, the Hamburg, Germany-based collector Harald Falckenberg, and Mr. Wilson. Several years ago, Mr. Falckenberg curated a similarly inspired show at Watermill of work by Paul Thek, an artist whom Mike Kelley wrote about in 1992, leading to Thek’s first retrospective and essentially pulling him out of obscurity. (“I am convinced that this development is due to the initial essay of Mike Kelley,” Mr. Falckenberg writes in his catalog foreword.) Mr. Wilson also happens to be president of the Thek estate.

The considerable gap in contemporary art left by Kelley’s suicide is most apparent in his video works, several of which are projected upstairs at Watermill in rooms with tinted windows and all the lights turned off. In Family Tyranny, shot in a community television studio over the course of a day with the artist Paul McCarthy, Kelley plays an abused child and Mr. McCarthy takes on the role of the violent father. Kelley weeps and howls while Mr. McCarthy calls him a “piece of shit” or “daddy’s little boy” and tries to spank him. It is difficult to watch, and it looks like it was even more difficult to make—at times, the masquerade of their characters lifts and their suffering is eerily apparent.

Just down the road in Bridgehampton is a decidedly more cheerful domestic scene, “Creature from the Blue Lagoon,” a group show curated by Bob Nickas inside the rented summer home of art dealer Jose Martos. Here, work by 40 artists is seen in its natural environment.

The show is a reminder that before there were rich collectors in the Hamptons, there were artists. They have completely overtaken this house. On the porch are two paintings, made with photo plates, by Ryan Foerster. In the shed, Servane Mary installed silkscreened images of Julie Newmar as Catwoman on mirrored Plexiglas. Johanna Jackson’s towel with a fruit bowl printed on it had blown into the trees out back.

Up in the attic is the show’s real highlight, a group of Davina Semo’s floor pieces made from broken safety glass, exposed wire mesh, spray paint and concrete. She’s made of the almost unbearably warm room a kind of echo chamber: her square concrete canvases blend in with the cracked floorboards, and the broken fencing she’s affixed to various parts of the brick walls causes the environment surrounding the art to bleed together with the works themselves.

In the kitchen, the art is at its most subtle. There are paintings by B. Wurtz made on the bottoms of cheap serving trays. Above the table is a brutally close-up photograph of compost by Mr. Foerster. Darren Bader has strategically placed boxes of Pampers baby diapers around the house, which the baby, sleeping upstairs, may or may not make use of. He also put a chocolate bar inside the fridge, but that exhibition was closed; somebody had eaten it.

“There’s always been good art out there,” Mr. Nickas said. “In the 1940s and 1950s, the Hamptons is where artists went and they rented cottages and they had studios. It’s also like any part of the New York quote-unquote ‘art world’: everyone follows the artists. The money, the real estate. And it goes on today. The first place that artists go to ends up being the first place they have to leave.”