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Mike Kelley’s Abjection

“When I was young the art world was where you went to be a failure. It was a chosen profession, and you chose to be a failure.” – Mike Kelley, 2004

2013’s exhibition calendar for the major museums in New York City brought a seemingly unprecedented invasion of West Coast artists to our attention. The onslaught included important figureheads like Paul McCarthy, who took over the Park Avenue Armory in his Disney-inspired, pornographic video installation WS, James Turrell, who transformed the Guggenheim Museum into a sublimely colorful skyspace, Robert Irwin, who exhibited one of his classic light paintings at the Whitney and Chris Burden, whose brilliantly lunatic work was tamed and repurposed in the New Museum’s halfheartedly edgy retrospective of the man who once shot and crucified himself for art. Though Pacific Standard Time, a statewide collaboration between California’s art institutions, is responsible for this left coast trend, perhaps it’s more truthful to say that New York’s institutions exercised some much-needed escapism.

Mike Kelley, the Detroit-born, California-‘trained’, multimedia artist who tragically committed suicide early last year, wraps up this impressive West Coast lineup with a massive retrospective at MoMA’s PS1.  Kelley’s edgy, rebellious artwork strikes a fitting year-end chord, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who better embodies 2013’s brooding, dystopian attitude –– a mood ushered into art and culture by an economy that continues to sputter and stammer, a wealth gap that’s widening to reflect shocking societal disparities, and an American Dream that looks less and less like a reality to more and more people. Mike Kelley’s work is the perfect antidote, although catalyst might be a better descriptor, and though PS1’s vast retrospective is far from perfect, the artwork still smolders with emotion; it is anything but passive. Mike Kelley: A retrospective is an indicator of what may come in 2014.

The curators of the exhibition, PS1’s Peter Eleey and the Hammer Museum’s Connie Butler, should garner a great deal of respect for putting together this retrospective, the collaborative planning of which began years before Kelley died. The exhibit uses over 40,000 feet of gallery space and spans three decades of Kelley’s work. In addition, PS1 is a former public school and remains a creaky maze of tunnels, stairwells, hallways, rooms, galleries and doorways. Every entrance looks the same, it’s impossible not to get lost, and the whole building exudes an air of institutional restriction. This retrospective is also PS1’s first exhibit dedicated to a single artist, and Eleey and Butler curated an anything but cohesive show from Kelley’s disparate body of work—the retrospective includes his writing, drawings, paintings, sculptures, textiles, videos, performances and interactive installations. More like a group show than a retrospective, the exhibition feels scattered and disjointed, and if there was a chronology to the exhibition, it’s lost in the viewing. Instead, the curators have been forced by the variety of Kelley’s work to let us to meander through a lifetime’s worth of ideas.

It is not surprising that the greatest strength of the exhibition is also its greatest weakness: Kelley’s unprecedented artistic diversity. Relentlessly dismissive of the modernist idiom “truth to material,” Kelley embraced the idea that “effect” was infinitely more important than the medium. In a 1993 review, New York Times critic Roberta Smith chided Kelley for “seeming to work from a narrative that remains most vivid in his own mind,” and that criticism still rings true. The show begins on an odd note with Kelley’s Kandor-inspired, bell jar series of sculptures, but from there the exhibition is like a choose-your-own-adventure book. What you see, where you go and how you experience the art is entirely in the viewer’s hands. Aesthetics, styles, and materials come and go by moving from one room to the next: a screaming video can be left behind for a cartoonish drawing, or a massive installation for an interactive peepshow. Kelley said he created art to “please himself,” and this retrospective allows us to do much the same thing, as we can view and dismiss at our leisure.

Best known for his work with fiber, one of the exhibitions most compelling installations is a room titled Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites from the 1990s, where piles of stuffed animals, sewn together into sculptural blobs, dangle from the ceiling. Along the walls, the minimalist, monochromatic sculptures create geometric shapes of color. It’s a room in which viewers want to touch and recoil simultaneously, and while the colorful stuffed animals look soft and inviting, on closer inspection they are tattered and dirty. Kelley’s textile work appeals to our idealized remembrances of childhood, while forcing us to address the more sinister and powerless side of adolescence. Kelley’s stuffed animals cause us to wonder if have they been soiled by love or neglect, and act as surrogates for childhood itself.

In another installation titled Pay for Your Pleasure, from 1987, Kelley drew portraits of male artists, novelists, and poets, in bright colors, writing their own words above their heads. Hung side-by-side, floor to ceiling and on either side of a long, narrow corridor, Pay for Your Pleasure looks like a patchwork quilt of long forgotten faces and much remembered words. Collectively, the quotes create a narrative around our inner demons fighting against our better selves. “We shelter in ourselves an angel whom we constantly shock,” quips Jean Cocteau. Kelley has curated a collection of thinkers and makers who believe that art is as dangerous as it is liberating, that laws are better broken than maintained and that giving in to forbidden impulses produces the most creativity.

Kelley’s two-dimensional pieces, act like small nuggets of brilliance amidst the larger debris of the exhibition. His paintings are humorous, like his large-scale Cliffs Notes painting, sardonically titled Know Nothing (1984). A smart dig at education, his yellow and black painting draws us back to our high school days of shortcuts and willful ennui. Kelley also created a series of assemblage-inspired relief ‘paintings’ in the early 2000s. Titled Memory Ware Flat, they are made of beads, buttons, jewelry and hardware. Like bean collages, these paintings are irreverent collections of unsentimental objects that take on a beautiful, painterly aesthetic. The materials blend sarcasm with the feminine and domestic, and while the paintings initially feel random, they transcend themselves into meaningful collections of castaway objects.

At other times in the exhibition Kelley is unexpectedly subtle. In his photographic piece Black Out (2001), a string of photographs show the Detroit River obscured by darkness, like a badly exposed image from a toy camera. The photographs feel political, resembling the redacted text of a classified document, but they are also wistful and nostalgic, like Kelley is looking with tenderness on the place where he grew up. A set of eight, large format photographs hung in a line, they form a kind of nonlinear narrative from which viewers can extrapolate only broken pieces of information. Peering into the murky images, we can barely recognize the typical buildings of an industrial waterfront, and the photographs cause us to wonder what happened, or is happening, in this place.

Another quiet, intimate piece is Kelley’s interactive installation Rose Hobart II (2006), which consists of two intensely claustrophobic, connected tunnels that viewers crawl inside. A peephole projection within depicts the famous shower scene from the 1982 film Porky’s, a sex comedy about teenagers in a fictional high school. Sexual, voyeuristic and mysterious, the room is so dark you have to be directed by the museum staff to the hole you are expected to crawl into. This installation quietly elicits a deep sense of anxiety from its viewers. Kelley, at his unsettling best, invites viewers inside his sculpture only to send them out rattled and confused, wondering what exactly it was they just experienced.

There is certainly much to appreciate in the casual, alternative nature of this exhibition, but a lot is left wanting, and you leave the museum knowing you’ve missed something. MoMA’s choice of PS1 rather than their Manhattan home suits Kelley’s delinquent-like persona and anti-establishment sentiments, but it also feels intentionally negligent, relegating one of America’s great contemporary masters to the halls of an abandoned school in Queens. Mike Kelley believed that art by nature is political, and that its job was to “tear up” the systems of power and authority we all complicity endorse. For him, art was the only arena left in American culture where difference was still tolerated. Love it or hate it, Kelley’s retrospective dazzles with a kind of subversive empathy toward the world as he saw it. The show, as well as Kelley’s work, is saved by its own inconsistency. This retrospective gives a new generation a chance to experience his work, and even if we don’t like it, we should be deeply grateful for an artist who, says the critic Randy Kennedy, “spent much of his time scavenging in Americas cultural cul-de-sacs.”


All Photography© Alissa Guzman


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