Ever listen to an old soul or funk album and have one of those revelatory “so this is where Coolio got that sample” moments? The long awaited Mike Kelley retrospective at the Stedelijk guarantees a few of these embarrassing, how-did-I-not-know-this realizations. Embrace it, as embarrassment finds a companionable home in Kelley’s work, where youthful traumas, anxieties, and repressed memories come out to play – one of his later projects literally pairs Color Field painting with YouTube videos of humiliated, crying children.
Kelley’s legacy is inscribed in the contemporary art landscape – not so much through direct appropriations, but in a more generative way. (Examples of its offspring can be found conveniently down the hall in the Stedelijk’s permanent collection.) Kelley’s birdhouses, borrowed crafts, stuffed animals, and comics helped lowbrow pop culture and found objects, utilitarian and junk alike, assimilate into the contemporary art vernacular. He was the consummate nonconformist who rejected art market machinations, while finding increasing success within the very institutions he sought to evade. Time has perhaps tempered its irreverence and shock-value, but Kelley’s remarkable lucidity and humor ensure that his life’s work remains evocative and significant.
Following Kelley’s untimely death this year, the stakes of the exhibition changed. His oeuvre was suddenly complete, and a mid-career survey was transformed into a definitive retrospective – perhaps more by expectation than design. While the show isn’t perfect – you’re left wanting more of some things and less of others – the curators clearly understood their responsibility, and the exhibition’s meta-themes open onto notions of completeness, history, biography, and the extent to which a person can be represented by creative output. Even before his suicide, Kelley’s biography was enmeshed in his work, and whether you laugh, cringe, roll your eyes, or cry in the face of it (you’ll probably do all of the above), you can’t help but consider the personality and circumstances that created it.
Mike Kelley, Switching Marys, 2004-2005, video installation; Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam / Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.
The retrospective largely feels more like a well-crafted survey than the definitive exhibition. It represents a wide-ranging but non-exhaustive variety of works, following roughly chronological order. Abbreviated selections stand in for greater wholes. Kelley’s idea-driven practice included almost every conceivable media and curators take pains to represent them all, if only in passing. The artist’s musical work with the band Destroy All Monsters, for example, is piped into the long escalator tube connecting the exhibition’s two levels; drawings, props, and photo-documentation represent his absurd, highly choreographed performances, some of which are also shown in their entirety in a large theater near the exhibition’s conclusion. There is a lot here, but sometimes only a little of a lot.
The work takes many faces – from scatological drawings to photos of the American “sublime”, from stuffed animal Arena floor sculptures to felt banners of college leaflets – but while the aesthetic evolves in shifts both gradual and radical, the sentiment never really goes away. In a more holistic than linear move, the exhibition literally loops back onto itself in the form of a long corridor installation of Pay For Your Pleasure, a 1988 mega-work comprising oversized portraits of artists and philosophers with quotes equating art and creativity with madness and criminality. At the end of this hallowed hallway is an unmarked painting by a local criminal. An acerbic wit and provocative critic, Kelley picked apart consecrated notions of knowledge and culture, tearing at the seams of philosophy, literature, politics, history, psychology, and religion.
One constant throughout is the exploration of memory and identity. After (incorrect) critical speculation about the dark personal origins of work employing soiled childhood objects, Kelley became interested in the discredited Repressed Memory Syndrome, which posits an amnesia of painful life events. The complications of remembering and forgetting inform much of the work. Educational Complex (1995) is an expansive model of every school Kelley ever attended. Gaps in memory become gaps in the model, drolly suggesting forgotten terrors. In the Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction installations (part of the epic Day Is Done show at Gagosian in 2005), fantastical videos reimagine activities culled from yearbook photos. The inaccurate and overlapping “memories” are in turn mortifying, frightening, and funny. A trip to the barbershop results in the merciless teasing of a young boy, who resurfaces in an adjacent video installation crying, “This isn’t real! I wanna wake up!” Next door, the Kandor project imagines iterations of Superman’s home city, which he was forced to protect. In these works, as well as in the heartbreaking canvas constructed of handmade stuffed animals and blankets, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987), positive things like love and memories become unpayable debts and unhappy cargo.
Memory here is a process as well as something with a real, yet unfixed shape. It’s a place, a landscape uncovered through objects and images like architectural models of schools, bottled reconstructions of cities on faraway planets, and videos inspired by yearbook photographs. The pleasures of nostalgia are supplanted by the imperfect, the awkward, the painful. The Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions are so arresting because they are confusing and uncomfortable. If we can’t fully understand them, that’s by design.
In a way, the retrospective mirrors Kelley’s approach to active, reconstructive memory. It uses diverse objects to fill in a hazy picture, an incomplete landscape of something we’ve lost and cannot fully recover. It’s bittersweet, for it refreshes our memory while keeping secrets. What lurks in the empty chambers of those classrooms? What’s hiding under the afghan? Partial memories become legend, and in the museum, they become history.
(Image on top: Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin, 1987; Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York / Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.)