Most of the rituals of living life are laid bare in the Museum of Contemporary Art's retrospective of Mike Kelley at the Geffen. Traumas bubble up from the basement of our pasts. Memory is found to be faulty and capable of being reorganized by desire. Patterns of life held dear today are found to have disturbing origins in history of violence and exploitation. All delivered with laughter, diabolical and absurd, the kind that comes from camp's exaggeration and annihilation of form. Kelley was raucous and uncontainable until the very end. He refused to be ruled. He refused to praise blindly. He studied and continued to study, pushing his conclusions often to their depressing ends. Kelley is Mozart's defiant Don Giovanni, he is Rameau's rebellious nephew, he is de Sade, he is Prufrock, he is Bloom. He is an unlikely Hamlet from Detroit, well versed in the MC5 and Sun Ra but also knowing the history of every comic book ever bad enough to warrant censorship from concerned parents.
I remember the first time I saw Mike Kelley.
I had crossed from the westside to the east in L.A. to view, for whatever reason, a porno by Lawrence Weiner at Cottage Home Art Gallery, a space which happened to reside, as it were, in an old porn theater. Many in the audience had a good time during the film, which featured Weiner's words recited by actors and the artist’s deep voice, dubbed-in, spliced with scenes of pale-assed hipsters going at it in, of all things, an art gallery. The mood was raucous, comic, and no one, it seemed, was taking this absurd bit of theater seriously except me, who was grumpy because I thought the whole thing a waste of my time, that the whole premise for the film and the event was just another clumsy invention designed so a small community could delight in small-bore transgressions, defusing any meaning from it with “That was great,” and other pieties we exchange when a good artist does something bad and we feel obligated to err on the side of affirmation with our opinions. Kelley was across the room, sitting still.
Mike Kelley, Plaid Dialogue, 1997, mixed media on paper, 66 x 50.8 cm; Eileen and Michael Cohen Collection; Photo: Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts
I don't know what Kelley thought of the piece, but when he spoke, the audience snapped to attention. He asked Weiner a question so deep and complicated that it was hard for me to follow, a question layered with knowledge about conventions of pornography and erotica and how those conventions had changed over the last thirty years. He wanted Weiner to define how he was thinking about pornography, how his practice concerning language could interact with, subvert, and possibly change the structure of what pornography meant. He wanted Weiner to place his porno in a larger history of erotica and performance art: all told, Kelley demanded that this bit of fun be serious, committed, and fully thought out. It was an intense crit offered by one master to another. In the field of pornography, often superficial titillation at best, here was Kelley stepping forward as an engaged thinker, an adept historian, and a scientist. Kelley was going to make for damn sure that this event meant something. He was not going to have the experience and miss the meaning.
This questioning is at the heart of every Mike Kelley work, no matter how extreme, no matter how kooky and off-putting, no matter with how much abandon it frenzies. There is always an analysis going on, always a testing of boundaries. This analysis can offer moments of release, but also offers devastating critique and crippling self-doubt. Kelley, often considered one of postmodernism's poster children, actually stood at the critical fault line of modernism, the point where the rituals of the past came into question and where people started to find themselves, in their analysis, to be losing their feelings, their will to action; they found themselves quite unable to fully inhabit the drunken beliefs of the past.
From the very beginning of his career, Kelley identified with art as an avant-garde activity. As a child and a teenager, his loves were countercultural, atypical of the Detroit, blue-collar upbringing. Kelley did not fit in the culture he found himself in and felt most comfortable in resistance. He grew up in the world of the Detroit riots, of the economic prosperity of the '50s running into the further reality of the arms race, the push for civil rights, and the extended horror of Vietnam. Kelley was a product of optimistic times turned sour, of times where the powerful consolidated their power through a cold, impersonal inertia seemingly out of the control of an individual.
The avant-garde impulse in art to analyze and counter dominant cultural models suited Kelley nicely, but, when he actually went to art school, he found less the spirit of the avant-garde than institutionally certified, what he called “corporate,” Minimalism and Pop, which had started as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism and had become, in a little over a decade, nothing more than mannerism. The true spirit of the avant-garde for Kelley came in the actions of '60s revolutionary and hippie culture, but this too had been packaged, refined, and sold. Its more extreme fringes were repressed.
It is fitting that in 1977 at CalArts, we find Kelley making birdhouses. On one hand, it is child’s play, the activity of boy and his “pa,” but in art school in the 1970s, when most of the talk is high minded and anti-kitsch and belligerently anti-craft, Kelley is openly sinning. He turned the simple ritual of making a birdhouse into an existential endeavor, aimed at stridently undermining what he was supposed to do as an art student while botching the sincerity of the childhood activity as well. Kelley's houses are not easy on birds either, subjecting their storied freedom to the life lessons of children. Kelley doesn't fit in his childhood home, but he doesn't really fit in art either. His strategy of art making runs counter to both.
At the Geffen, the simplest way to see Kelley's attack on the conventions of both art and life is to simply look at the multiplicity of his mediums. He worked in sculpture, music, performance, drawing, painting, and video at a time in art when most of the discussion in criticism was about the specific virtues and evolution of each medium in isolation. Kelley not only didn't believe in the purity of mediums, he found the entire discourse silly, stating that it is the effect of art and not the means that mattered. Kelley would use anything he thought could get the point across, and the point was always that art ritual mimicked life's rituals and that all rituals were arbitrary until justified.
Mike Kelley, Rainbow Coalition, 1985, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 259.08 x 223.52 cm; Courtesy David Zwirner; Photo: Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts
This led to what I consider his most important contribution to recent art history, his stuffed animal projects, begun in/around 1990. Kelley seemed to be among the first to see that Judd's specific objects and Duchamp's readymades were basically hothouse flowers, bred in isolation by the art-initiated, arriving cut-off and foreign from the real grit of life. These objects had no memory and therefore could not wear the effects of trauma, which makes humans human.
Kelley soiled the readymade, used animals that were dirty and played with, eyes popping out and seams fraying. Art always represents something for Kelley and cannot escape this fact. Judd Stacks are not perfect, only perfect in their repression of everything that they are not. Kelley, however, is not aiming at flimsy sentimentality and dewy biography. In perhaps his greatest work, Craft Morphology Flow Chart (1991), we have the same dolls and animals, all loved and all treasured, subjected to his clinical eye. Kelley allows Judd’s revenge. I can think of no other work in the history of art that so perfectly captures the tension between art and science, expressionism and minimalism, romanticism and empiricism. It is all here. Kelley, the second coming of Edgar Allen Poe with all the darkness.
I think every person will find something they love attacked and analyzed in some way at the Geffen. It is not that Kelley is doing it out of malice—it is more like taking Plato's maxim about the unexamined life being not worth living to its extreme terminus. Those things that you love, Kelley seems to say at every turn, must withstand my attacks if they are to be believed to have the power that you think they have.
For me, the attack came in Kelley's ribbing of 4-H clubs in his Pansy Metal/Clovered Hoof (1989/2009) series of flags. I was in 4-H for the same reason that Kelley took to noise music—it was what I knew and loved, and like Kelley, I was ridiculed at my city school for what I loved, cast out as a country bumpkin and whitetrash like Kelley was cast out as a pansy art kid. It is a strange empathy indeed when one finds a kinship with Kelley through his attack on something you love. It takes a little while to know, but eventually you realize that Kelley was alienated by the very same club that offered me inclusion and place to feel at home, alienated so much that he takes action, ripping the clovers off the 4-H symbol and replacing them with testicles, the 4-H pledge to heart, health, hands, and head replaced with a punk's mustache of hanging, heavy, hairy, and horny. Kelley's defamation doesn't make me angry. The result is instead existential—that there is a sick comedy to our games of inclusion and exclusion, that the whole game might be rigged, that we are all somehow outcasts from something fundamentally lost to us and that we can never truly know about.
Perhaps it is too soon to truly be critical about Kelley. He is a hero in Los Angeles. You cannot speak to anyone with any interest in the arts more than a degree removed from someone taught by Kelley, helped out by Kelley, inspired by Kelley, and many actually worked for Kelley. Everyone remembers what he looked liked, his voice, and, though the artist himself may have bristled to all the fuss, there is an ongoing sentimentality about his life and work. Perhaps it is for this reason that most of the debate that I've experienced about the retrospective, thus far, is merely whether it looked better at PS1 in New York or in Los Angeles. Here we have art twisting and writhing in its own complex pain, asking difficult questions around each corner, sometimes right on the money and other times far off the mark, and we have reduced it into a decorating contest.
This is a shame, for what we have is a show not afraid to throw punches and definitely not afraid of its own bruises. I hope we are able to let loose some of the same steel-eyed analysis upon Kelley that he let loose on us, for until that happens, his work is under the risk of being a monument to a strange friend rather than what it should be, which is work that puts the troubles of being alive on view and tests every ritual, every structure, and every interest we involve ourselves with. There is something about Kelley that is caught between an unapologetic, true fan's love of sincere activity and a subsequent identification with other sympathetic souls also engaged in that activity, but there is also a willfully, painfully self-conscious need to deconstruct and analyze those same loves.
We experience the same dilemma every day, and here is Kelley, our Virgil, ready to show us Hell.
(Image on top: Mike Kelley, Ahh…Youth!, 1991, set of 8 Cibachrome photographs, 24 x 20 in. each, one at 24 x 18 in.; Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts)