Mike Kelley: Explosions Of Colour That Lurked Inside His Deep Dark Life

Mike Kelley

I went to the Mike Kelley retrospective at PS1 late, at 9pm, for the packed NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM event. I was also late in the exhibition schedule as the “Mike Kelley” show ends Feb 2nd. I wish I had made the trek to PS1 in Long Island City, sooner, so I could go back and see this show again and again. I felt sad because the show was ending and because Mike Kelley’s life ended a year ago (at age 57) from suicide.  The humorous, bright-coloured works seemed to highlight the tragedy of his demise.  As with any loss, and especially after a suicide, we feel a longing to know more, to understand more. There is also the eerie echo of what remains. In this case, luckily, three decades of Mike Kelley’s extremely unique artistic output is on view.

The first time I saw a work by Mike Kelley was at the 1993 Whitney Biennial.  The piece, I saw “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” 1987 is a large, jumbled, colorful construction hung on the wall. It is crammed with soiled and abandoned stuffed animals and old crocheted Afghans. I was simultaneously repelled by and strangely drawn to the piece. What the hell was this mess on the wall? At the time, I wanted to turn away and dismiss it with a snide, ‘You call this art?’ But the filthy plush toys and mangled crocheted Afghans reeked not only of thrift stores but also of my own childhood closet.  The colors were from the 60’s — bright polyesters that were once promising, but were now just dingy and sad. The junkyard presence of once preciously clutched toys suggested a bleak wasteland of childhoods long gone But this stirring pathos, I learned, is not what Kelley consciously intended when he made the work. It was apparently done as a response to a conceptual trend at that time of ‘giving art as gifts’ or a rebellion against art as a commodity.  The title of the piece suggests art cannot have a value.

However, the sewn and sensitive sentiment portrayed by a (straight) male artist got tongues wagging. Kelley became of interest. At the time, people read this plush-toy series (titled ‘Half A Man’) as relating to childhood trauma. For a man to sew and use stuffed animals also seemed taboo. Kelley toyed with us and then started mixing personal narratives with pseudo narratives based on the abundant theories about his childhood. He seized the momentum of this interest by further enunciating his audience’s theories in a work from 1990 called “Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology,” 1990. In this piece, human-sized happy/macabre stuffed toys hang on the wall in the form of black and white acrylic drawings. Beneath the large paper drawings, little coffin-like black boxes lay on the floor. Each box has a hatch, suggesting that if you were to open the hatch you would see the decayed plush toy buried beneath the earth.  How very clever of Kelley to further reduce the tug of childhood to the buried memory of a toy. It is, of course, brilliant, and more significantly for me, it touched my heart. Standing there, I saw that all the other adults wandering around the exhibition were likely carrying tiny coffins of dead ideals in their own hearts too.

While the plush toys are Kelley’s most iconic works, over his thirty-five-year career, he worked in every conceivable medium—drawings on paper, sculpture, performances, music, video, photography, and painting. I read he was maniacal about making work. Not only is this Kelley’s largest exhibit to date as it spans early pieces made during the 1970s up to and through work from 2012. The exhibition also occupies the entire PS1 museum, which marks the biggest exhibition MOMA PS1 has ever organized.

Allow me to walk you a through a bit of the show.

“Birdhouses and Missing Time” 1978-79 is a large collection of actual birdhouses Kelley made as his thesis piece during his final years at the Cal Arts graduate program. Using how-to woodworking manuals, Kelly made a series of plywood birdhouses infused with subtle absurdist twists. For one thing, each house allows the birds inside to see or spy out through private cracks and crannies. This series marks the beginning of what turns into a career-long investigation of imaginary or remembered architectural forms. One huge room on the 2nd floor, houses (on a table), a pristine and sprawling, white architectural model that is a compendium of all the educational institutions Kelly ever attended. While “Educational Complex”, 1995, is an accurate representation, it is also a fusion of these educational buildings from his past with his memories. The piece is a jumbled mental space that is now exquisitely rendered in real space.

In keeping with this ‘educational’ idea is a huge piece he made called “John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project.” Kelley made this large installation in 2001 for an exhibition celebrating the 300th anniversary of his hometown, Detroit.  The centerpiece of this multi-media room is a heroic sculpture of the astronaut John Glenn. The larger-than-life sculpture is modeled after a John Glenn sculpture that stood in the Detroit high school he attended. Kelley covered his work debris he dredged out of the Detroit River.  Hanging on the attendant walls, are reprints of archived local newspaper pieces that explore Kelley’s early memories and influences. Also on the walls is a series of large photographs called “Blackout.”  The 35- millimeter film was shot while on a boat going down the Detroit River. Apparently the camera malfunctioned and Kelley used the hard-to- read, blacked-out images as a metaphor of lost or repressed memories. PS1 is of course, itself, a repurposed educational institution that boldly retains the school-halls-and-stairways ambiance. So to see these educational reflections by Kelley in the context of an actual ‘abandoned’ school premise packs a double wallop.

And this is just a fraction of the work on display. Other important sections of this extensive exhibition are the videos and the elements remaining from Kelley’s numerous performance works. There are rooms of video display where we see things like Kelley dressed as Superman, reading Sylvia Plath poems! There are also rooms devoted to the many multimedia installation works he created, such as “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile,” 1985-1986. This title refers to the well-known allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, and it is juxtaposed in association with the chapel made by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko in Houston, Texas, as well as with Abraham Lincoln’s profile. The piece plays with the idea of what is reality and what merely a shadow, and how looking inward and looking out can alter our perception. “Plato’s Cave” was also the title of a performance featuring Kelly and the band Sonic Youth that was held at Artist Space in New York in 1986. The audio recording from this event plays in this gallery, The Sonic Youth music echoed in the room and stuck in my mind as I walked through the rest of the wonderful wackiness and poignancy that is Kelley’s art. They sung “The meaning is obvious. It is beautiful”

Words/Photos: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2014

“Mike Kelley”- MoMa PS 1 Oct 13 2013- Feb 2nd 2014 Organised by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in co-operation with the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts: and organized at MoMA PS1- Onward to MOCA in CA 


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