MIKE KELLEY AND THE INSTITUTIONALIZED, "SENSITIVE" SUBJECT – by Max Guy

Featured in Issue 2 

  Mike Kelley. Day is Done. 2005-06. Installation view in Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. © 2013 MoMA PS1; Photo Matthew Septimus.

 

Mike Kelley. Day is Done. 2005-06. Installation view in Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. © 2013 MoMA PS1; Photo Matthew Septimus.

Mike Kelley’s retrospective at MoMA PS1 is the most recent incarnation of a travelling survey organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The exhibition was curated by the organizing museum’s former director, Ann Goldstein and offers the opportunity to view to over 250 of Kelley’s pieces spanning the artist’s career over a period of three decades. Rather than present the work chronologically, the retrospective takes up the entirety of the museum and is designed thematically in order to “underscore the recursive nature of Kelley’s work.” 

The show includes Kelley’s renowned film Day Is Done (2005) and an older series of handcrafted birdhouses (1978). However, introducing the exhibition in its installation on the first floor of PS1, is Kelley’s multimedia series Kandor. The series takes its name from the fictional city Kandor, which, in the DC universe, was stolen from planet Krypton, then miniaturized and bottled by a supervillain, before coming under the protection of Superman. The copious number of sculptures in Kandor portrays the city in as many versions, submerged in colored liquid, priestlike, preserved beneath hand-blown glass in every size and shape. It can be said that Kelley’s representation of Kandor is true to the comic books in which Kandor does not retain a stable representation—the city, rather, represents how each generation of illustrators envisioned the utopia and technological sophistication of an alien city. It is possible that Kelley identifies with Kandor locals or Superman himself when remembering his own distance from and regret for his home city, Detroit—now a national symbol of economic and industrial decline. The melancholy Kelley associates with Kandor—and perhaps also with Detroit—is most clearly demonstrated in a video, portraying Superman as he recites Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel synonymous with mawkish teen angst. Kandor 10 B is used as the set for Kelley’s Vice Anglais (2012), a 30-minute film about a group of perverted clowns who kidnap a woman, screened within the installation of Kandor.

Drawing from the visual subculture of comic book fandom is characteristic of Kelley—as was noted in Justin Lieberman’s essay The (Continuous) Use Value of Mike Kelley An Open Letter, Etc. Etc., first published in Nero Magazine, 2009. 

It is not the reduction of minimalism to a sign that Kelley seeks but an extension of minimalisms very goals. The subcultural material Kelley utilizes in order to achieve these goals are not used as signs of the low in order to formulate an diagrammatic equation (with minimalism as high) but as the foundational aspects of a critical regionalism evolving parallel to institutional modernism.”

While works such as Kelley’s white birdhouses ape the sterilized look of minimalist sculpture—Robert Morris comes to mind—his lowbrow [even Pop] homage to Kandor reminds viewers that alternative cultures survive, in whatever form no matter how derelict, if only to antagonize that culture officially endorsed by the art world [some might say, by the institution]. The neurosis and paranoia required to analyze objects as such reminds his audience of the psychological ramifications of elevating objects to the status of art.

Mike Kelley. Day is Done. 2005-06. Installation view in Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. © 2013 MoMA PS1; Photo Matthew Septimus.

Mike Kelley. Day is Done. 2005-06. Installation view in Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. © 2013 MoMA PS1; Photo Matthew Septimus.

It was in Kelley’s work that I first witnessed an artist perhaps master the pragmatics of minimalism as an expressive form, not merely as a mode of critique. I was first introduced to Mike Kelley’s work when Printed Matter exhibited the work of his band/collective, Destroy All Monsters, in 2009. At the time I was a big fan of Godzilla movies and so I was immediately attracted to the eponymous collective. I was in my junior year of college and began researching Kelley’s work, picking up an exhibition catalog from Mike Kelly - Peter Fischli, David Weiss. It was critical distancing, while still retaining some of the psychological trauma from adolescence that first attracted me to Kelley’s work. The melancholy in recognizing that other people like bands from your youth as much as you do. More so, there is the immense despair in expressing sentimentality to others. 

Yet, following The (Continuous) Use Value, the expressive nature of Kelley’s work is continually overshadowed by conversations of, minimalism and pop. A back and forth between Lieberman and curator, Andrea Lissoni in Nero, focuses more on the complexity and functionality of the work. 

I want to use the analogy of the Merrie Melodies episode “The Hair Raising Hare” featuring Bugs Bunny and his folly, the antagonist Gossamer. Bugs is lured into the castle of a mad scientist, and pursued by Gossamer, the tall, headless, sneaker-wearing monster covered in red fur. What ensues is nothing out of the ordinary for a predator-and-prey cartoon sketch; at every turn Bugs overcomes Gossamer’s physical prowess with his cultural criticism and slapstick. The rabbit recites obscure lines from pop culture history as diversion – Gossamer even gets its nails done. Finally, upon capture, the monster’s hands tightly wrapped around the rabbit’s neck, the fourth wall is broken when Bugs reminds us of the act. “Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched?” Both heads turn towards us, the audience. Gossamer, in shock runs in the opposite direction, breaking through multiple walls in the process, disappearing into the layers of stratification that supposedly construct the scene. 

The dynamic between characters parallels two contending aspects of Kelley’s work, Gossamer - the predatory, primitive, expressive, and brutish – and bugs – sarcastic, clever, witty, critical, and aloof. But the stratification revealed by the expressive Gossamer never seemed to be invested in, dismissed as the end of the story and as an illusionistic façade. Emotionality is reduced to a “complexity that resides in his unique ability to organize the artwork within the space – as if it was a discourse diffused by multiple schemes (and screens), installed in several dimensions – and in the critical writing. “ 

Lissoni’s response to Lieberman’s essay – invested in a familiar rhetoric – never really seems to breach the surface of Kelley’s work. To the extent which we have been desensitized us to the obscene, the violent, the abject, Susan Sontag wrote in her essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. 

Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved. How much easier; from one’s chair, far from danger, to claim the position of superiority.

I couldn’t help but question the stuffed animals featured so prominently in PS1’s advertising campaign for the exhibition—perhaps an attempt to present a more consumer-friendly public image for Kelley, a notorious misanthrope. 

  Mike Kelley. Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. 1991/1999. Plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint, and disinfectant. Overall dimensions variable. (c) Estate of Mike Kelley.  Images courtesy of Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles. Photography: Joshua White/JWPictures.com.

 

Mike Kelley. Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. 1991/1999. Plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint, and disinfectant. Overall dimensions variable. (c) Estate of Mike Kelley.  Images courtesy of Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles. Photography: Joshua White/JWPictures.com.

The use of stuffed animals scattered throughout the exhibition in works such as the Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991–1999)—plush toys hung and dyed to resemble rainbow clouds—further exemplifies Kelley’s interest in neurotic interpretations of Minimalism and Pop Art. Without presenting the artist’s biography as central to the formal qualities of the work., the viewer can imagine how Kelley might be pushed to explore repressed trauma by working with objects charged by childhood memories.

To describe the retrospective as overwhelming would be an understatement. The exhibition design seems repetitive, while ignoring Kelley’s own impeccable ability to create holistic views of his work. The museum opted to present Kelley’s oeuvre somewhat indiscriminately, with no seeming investment in the content of the work outside of its cheap spectacle value. In light of Kelley’s suicide, I find it difficult to reconcile my own feelings of remorse with the hopeless picture he painted. Strangely enough, I might have enjoyed a chronological survey of the Kelley’s work as an opportunity to better understand his development, his endless return to subject matter that is as beguiling as it is despondent.  


  1. Of note is Kelley’s essay “In the Image of Man” first published in volume one of the catalogue for the Carnegie International, and then in “Minor Histories,” ed. John C. Welchman, 2004, MIT Press. 

  2. Miller, John. “Mike Kelley.” Bomb Magazine, http://bombsite.com/issues/38/articles/1502, 1992

  3. Crow, Kelly. “Mike Kelley: The Escape Artist. ”http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324678604578340322829104276,March 14th, 2013