Saturday, November 16, 2013

backward glance


The one-time enfant terrible, Mike Kelley, was a veritable solar system onto himself -- a culture all his own. On view at MoMA P.S.1, Kelley's sprawling exhibition -- what would have been a mid-career survey if not for his 2012 suicide -- unfolds through a honeycomb of classrooms-cum-kunsthalle in a massive overview that is incisive and luminous. Taken altogether, the show is astounding. 

The Kandor Series was based on Superman's birthplace -- a city on Krypton, his home planet -- from which Superman believed he was the only survivor. In reality, Kandor still existed in miniature, having been
shrunken to miniscule size by an evil enemy. Superman rescued Kandor, keeping it inside a bell jar
in perpetuity, sustained by oxygen tanks and TLC. An apt metaphor for the psychic and
spiritual disconnect that Kelley mined throughout his fantastical career.

Recently, someone said it was fitting that Kelley's largest ever show was installed not at MoMA's tonier mid-town Manhattan location but at P.S.1, a former public school, trading on his middle class upbringing in Detroit and inferring an art world slight of some significance. I see the point -- he was an art world anti-hero for much of his career -- but P.S.1 is a perfect venue for Kelley, an artist John Waters referred to as "a terrorist and a healer." The unorthodox and meandering nature of the building allows his operatic body of work to unfold in stanzas. 

Perhaps more importantly, P.S.1 doesn't require the art to be subservient to the institution, its hallowed walls or its own grandness. To be more succinct -- while distinctive, the architecture doesn't get in the way of the art. It feels like a clean slate, which for this canon-bending artist, is a great fit.

Kelley's work was fiercely American. Trenchant, reflective, devouring, his constantly morphing oeuvre placed him squarely in the foreground of the modern dialectic. He called himself an avant-gardist, but he was living in the avant-garde-less postmodern era and this, in the end, added a layer of alienation to a body of work that aspired to aesthetic disembodiment.

From his 70s noise band Destroy All Monsters to his final work, Mobile Homestead, a replica of his boyhood home in the Detroit suburbs that now stands astride MoCAD, Kelley questioned everything, rewriting the rules and then breaking them one by one. He thumbed his nose at popular culture, victimhood, identity and memory, not so much eschewing these things as restaging them with the savage brilliance by which he came to be identified.

from the Kandor Series, 1999 - 2011

He explored America's cultural genetics as well as his own, and in this self-reflective, me-looking-at-you-looking-at-me way, Kelley was able to weave DNA strand over DNA strand into a synthesis of critical thought, discursive logic and biting imagery. His middle class roots inured him to popular culture and its subsets (like craft traditions and folk art), and in the transference of imagery and content from that world into his art, some of his most emotive works emerged. 

detail, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites

The sumptuous, wildly popular Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991 - 1999, is super-loaded with associations to conspicuous consumption, fetishism, capitalism and childhood, and there, at the edges of this some-kinda nostalgia are the scuff marks and torn seams, the missing eyes and errant feet, and the tails and ears of abandoned, slightly soiled toys.

It's particularly ironic then, that the backed-up queue leading to the installation was mostly baby strollers and young parents. This is the feelgood gallery -- the opiate in the room -- where plushy orbs of pink and green stuffed-animals dangle like Christmas ornaments. A child's delight. 

Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991 - 1999

But among all the fluff and coziness is that funny/sad darkness that Kelley knew so well. Nihilism and heartbreak seemed to go hand in hand with what Jerry Saltz famously called Kelley's "clusterfuck aesthetics."

Kelley bristled at these "bad-boy" associations and in the end, it is his intellectual elegance and the convolutions of a restless mind that conjoin in a fictive, opera-like grandeur. Less prurient than his friend and frequent collaborator Paul McCarthy, Kelley's persona, while imprudent in the extreme, is more a commingling of Pierrot meets Goya than of Pierrot meets Caligula. 

Ahh...Youth, 1991, eight cibachrome prints

The artist's fictions wander through the work like stray dogs, redressing social structures, institutional abuse, dysfunction and forms of banality, subjugation and the cultural hazing that is such a large part of modern society. Though he denied abuse in his own childhood, he suffered from lifelong agoraphobia, a condition classically linked to unresolved trauma. Whether fictional or not, some of Kelley's greatest examinations in the dissociative properties of memory and repression were focused on his own history.

Lumpenprole, 1991

In Lumpenprole, 1991 -- monstrous lumps writhe under the bed/blankets in a depiction of classic childhood nightmares. 

detail, Educational Complex, 1995
Educational Complex, 1995 is a sprawling foam core maquette of the schools the artist attended, with "blank" areas inserted here and there -- the places, Kelley said, he couldn't recall due to the lingering effects of repressed memory syndrome. The hypothesis: these were the places he'd been abused. The leitmotif that runs through this work, as through much of his art, facetious or not, is most evident here.  

Kelley's primary subject matter was not autobiography -- it was repression, and the fictions created in its long shadow.

detail, Day is Done, 2005, multi-media installation

above and below, from the Kandor Series

I keep thinking about Harold Bloom's famed assertion that Shakespeare invented human consciousness. In the labyrinth of Kelley's oeuvre -- at once haunting and comical, high and low, mordant and intimate -- there is humanness, and beauty, in reverse.

Memory Ware

More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin, 1987

Mike, we hardly knew you.

MIKE KELLEY, on view at P.S.1 thru February 2, 2014

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