Mike Kelley

by Justin Lieberman

photography Giorgia Valli

coordination Claudia Vitarelli

11 November 2013

Don't listen to anthropologists.
Don't talk to anthropologists.
And don't quote anthropologists.
     -The Red Krayola with Art & Language, from Corrected Slogans, 1976

When I entered art school at age seventeen, I was looking for an underground. I was interested in William Burroughs, The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and San Francisco underground cartoonists from the 1970s. I wasn't much interested in abstract expressionism, because a lot of people my parent's age seemed to hold it in quasi-religious esteem. My goal at that time was to produce comics with fragmented narrative, and possibly posters for bands I liked. Three artists I discovered steered me towards other possibilitiesJack Smith, Harry Smith, and Mike Kelley. 

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On the left: Untitled (Pasolini), 1990. On the right: Janitorial Banner, 1984.

Kelley occasionally practiced a form of melancholic biomorphism that the contemporary utopian (or pitifully nostalgic) recollection of geometric constructivism now relies on for its other. The biomorphic versus the geometric was a favorite polemic of Kelley's and I do not think I am overstepping when I say that he made it abundantly clear which side he was on. He used this dualism as metaphor for virtually everything else, drawing on it to spin morality plays of good and evil with constant character reversals. This is not to say that Kelley eschewed geometric form in his art, only that when he employed it in his drama, it was often cast in the role of an authority figure to be undermined through formlessness. But he set the stage in the opposite direction as well (see the stated "fixing in form" of the formless rendered in the garbage drawings and the blob drawings). Because of these reversals, it is a complicated matter to contest Kelley's interpretations of his own work, and frankly, I am not even certain I want to. Nevertheless, at this stage in the game, it is a sort of duty. Freud himself cannot be a Freudian, after all, nor Christ a Christian.

Today, many young artists see Mike Kelley himself as the authority figure, and seek to undermine that authority through an association of Kelley with media spectacle, while distancing themselves from his work through adherence to various models of critique whose universalisms continued in Europe but faded from view in the US as Pop Art ascended. Thus American art takes a "European" turn. It is the powerful influence of Mike Kelley "The Father" over the last 20 years of American Art that sparks this rebellion. The return of "style" as a defining criteria for the originality of artworks is a perfect example. Another would be the return of the classical readymade. Kelley was an artist with a professed disinterest in personal style. And yet it would seem that he had one in any case. How to define it? 

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Above: Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology (2nd and 3rd Remove) #12, 1990, and Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology (2nd and 3rd remove), #5, 1990.

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Above: Pay For Your Pleasure, 1987.

Given the "spontaneous aesthetics" of Occupy Wall Street (junk sculpture, recycling, provisional structures, hand-painted signs), is it a strange question to ask what a young Mike Kelley might have thought? Or whether he might have participated? It was a brief flare up of American dissent, and was this not Kelley's preferred mode of discourse? What do we make of the rhyme of these aesthetics other than simply stating that they have been recuperated? Kelley's work, like a lot of punk, was in many ways predicated on the presumed failure of May 1968, and despite all its ecstatic revelation, it maintained a position of melancholia in regards to developments like OWS in America. We must not fool ourselves: for artists, there is a certain security in such a position. However, it is not the case with Kelley's work that he held politics at a distance. Like that other master of the grotesque, George Grosz, he confronted them directly (albeit more philosophically) and did not seek to follow Richter's maxim that "Aesthetic discourse must be developed independently" of such things. To Kelley, America was an empire of signs, one he sought to destroy, but for him the signs themselves had meaning that was both historically determined and to a certain extent irrevocable. And so he proclaimed the signs dead, and set about constructing monsters from pieces of their dismembered corpses. A deliberately debased form of popular pastiche whose ability to assimilate material into a rigorous structure could be compared to the Borg, or Salvador Dalí, an artist whose work Kelley held in high esteem. A popular nostalgia these days would have us dismiss this appraisal of irrevocability as mere "intentionality" on the part of the artist, which finds its support in the supposedly false idea that art has something to communicate rather than nothing. If there was ever an artist of intentionality who had something to communicate, it was Mike Kelley. If he tethered his work to politics in order that there might be something serious at stake, he also made himself excruciatingly accountable to his critics.  

Now I find myself repeating old arguments between abstraction and social realism. Appropriate, because Kelley's art does in some ways constitute a form of social realism. A social realism for his beloved midwestern lumpenproletariat. This brings me to Pasolini, another queer, Catholic aesthetician of the Garbage Class. Pasolini, even in the 1960s, was prescient enough to see what effects mass culture would have on this, his, stated audience. He knew that his films, his "fairy tales for children," could not compete for attention with television, which he despised. And so, like Kelley, he denounced the bread and circuses of repressive de-sublimation, and struck back with Salò: 120 Days, a communist masterpiece that maps the fascist intersection of power and enjoyment with mathematical precision.

For me, Kelley's Salò is not his epic "Day Is Done" but rather "A Voyage of Growth and Discovery," made in collaboration with Michael Smith and exhibited originally at Sculpture Center in 2009. For the show, Kelley and Smith travel to Burning Man and enact a parody of the infantilizing effects of that event. This is a crux in which he confronts the monster that he helped create. After all, it is precisely Kelley's enthusiasm for street theater and 60s drug-fueled freak culture that could lend an event like Burning Man any kind of legitimacy whatsoever. "What have I wrought?" I imagine him thinking. And then he steels himself and plunges into the fray. It is a paradoxical and contradictory work, simultaneously negation and affirmation. It may be his sole communist work, because, as with Salò, at the end of the day, there is nowhere else to turn. 

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On the left: Kandor 16, 2011. On the right: City 6, 2008.

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Above: Kandor 6, 2007.

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On the left: The Silent Scream, 1984. On the right: Two And Three Dimensions, 1994.

On the third floor of the PS1 show are Kelley's earliest works which, for the most part, could not have possibly been approximated by anyone else. In other words, they seem the furthest from cultural critique and the closest to highly subjective pronouncements. In a narrow hallway on one side is installed the "Banana Man" video, one of his masterpieces, along with notes pertaining to its narrative logic; a (Raymond) Rousselian maze of metaphor, simile, homonym, allegory, and every other literary device and system imaginable, all deployed towards a poetic / sophistic rant against authority that holds none as accountable as Kelley himself. There are notes and documentation regarding early performances "The Monitor and The Merrimac" and "The Oracle At Delphi"a demonstration of self-analysis and the incessant demands of a nonexistent Big Other. 

On the ground floor of the show are Kelley's final works: the Kandors (of which there are many) and the Horizontal Tracking Shots (there is only one). These pieces have the look of high-end industrial design. The welds on the Horizontal Tracking Shots are like a perfect stack of knocked over dimes, a far cry from the lumpy, barely ground down ones on "Entry Way (Genealogical Chart)." Although in both cases it would seem that the quality of welding technique is a million miles away from the point. And with Kelley, there is always a point. What is to be made of such an unimportant detail, in works separated by decades? Only this: in the last years of his work, Kelley employed a lot of people, and was thus responsible for their welfare; a responsibility that ethically took precedence over his responsibility to the legacy of his name. Weird how this seems to affirm Kippenberger's reversal of Beuys' maxim: "Every artist is also a person." 

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Above: Switching Marys, 2004-05.

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On the left: details of Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction installation2005-06. On the right: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #25 (Devil's Door), 2004-05.

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On the left: City 000, 2010. On the right: City 5, 2007.

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On the left: Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991-1999. On the right: Banana Man Costume, 1981, and Last Tool In Use, 1977.

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Above: video installation Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais), 2011.

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Above: Endless Morphing Flow of Common Decorative Motifs (Jewelry Case), 2002.

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Above: from the left, Mary Clare Stevens, executive director of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Ann Goldstein, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Peter Eleey, curator at MoMA PS1, and Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1.

Mike Kelley, The First Comprehensive Retrospective is on view thorugh
February 2nd, 2014.

MoMA PS1 is located at 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Queens, New York. 

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