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Mike Kelley Retrospective

MoMA PS1 | OCTOBER 13, 2013 – FEBRUARY 2, 2014

For the unfamiliar, a brief history of Mike Kelley, artist: born in Detroit, 1954, studied art at the University of Michigan, earned his MFA at Cal Arts during its moment as the epicenter of conceptual art in the ’70s, remained in Los Angeles, was first embraced by the art world for his found-object sculptural works that toyed with the conventional in the cynical 1980s, grew increasingly influential as his work expanded in ambition and scale, committed suicide at age 57.

Kelley’s cynicism, deftness with appropriation, and oddball subversiveness is introduced immediately in the exhibition space. “Entry Way (Genealogical Chart)” (1995) is a wall-mounted sculpture loaded with iconic symbols and logos one might find upon entering a small town in America—Kiwanis Club, 4-H, Masonic Lodge, Goodwill. This careful agglomeration of banal symbols, laid out in a vertical chart implying odd relationships, is something Kelley reputedly claimed was his own family tree. The name of the town is partially obscured, but the sign appears to demarcate the entry point at Tross City’s border. It’s a silly though coyly self-deprecating pun, equating Kelley’s genealogy to an atrocity borne of generations of the mundane. Next, “From My Institution to Yours” (1987) neatly sums up Kelley’s political voice. Here, in the cavernous basement space visible from the first floor, is a large-scale collision of high- and low-brow art. Kelley appropriates anonymous, clip-art style cartoon figures degraded by generations of photocopying and enlarges them (and their banal, one-liner office jokes) to adulatory scale. A surly lion-supervisor and frazzled worker-chipmunk are bordered with ornate gold molding and a flowery manifesto, all set upon a red carpet. All of this surrounds a defiant black fist. Kelley champions the concept of the worker but, in selecting trite cartoon figures, the piece seems to mock the futility of championing anything.

It is difficult to parse this exhibition. The show becomes a “choose your own adventure” affair. Walk down one hallway and become immersed in a softly-lit fantasy (interrupted only by depressed Superman or ultra-violent clowns). Enter one room and become baffled by the prototypes of ridiculous inventions explained by their dry assembly instructions. Another path leads one beneath silkscreened banners festooned with penises. In spite of Kelley’s reputation as a pan-media artist, one searches to find some common link between a mumbling sound piece filling one stairwell, the Raymond Pettibon-evoking stream of thought drawings in another room, and the myriad pieces to be filed under sophomoric humor writ large. Even his wry cynicism seems watered down and even poignant in a few marked examples (the most overt being Kelley’s “Kandor” series). PS1’s awkwardly repurposed geography exemplifies Kelley’s disjointed appropriation. It seems this is less a career digest than the compendium of a dexterous, grim, pop-culture-stuffed brain.

“Kandor” a body of work made between 1999 and 2011, grabs a vague plot fragment from the Superman comics to iteratively illustrate the concept of a once-great city contained in a bottle. “Kandors 2007” consists of several animated shorts depicting bottled cityscapes in luridly-colored comic-style graphics. The bottles undulate and quiver in sync with their respective soundtracks of disembodied voices shrieking, cooing, breathing. This incarnation suggests burgeoning life within each bottle but gives no further explanation. More penetrable versions of Kandor create a maze within the main floor space—each room varying in tone, color, or sound. These Kandors seem organic, even womb-like, in spite of being unabashedly artificial structures. Kelley’s droning, glowing resin cities are given implied breath by the winding, colorful lengths of tubing connecting them to giant air canisters. This hypnotic Kandor experience is wholly immersive, a feature of much of Kelley’s installation work. Yet, here, there are no creepy stuffed animals or penis jokes. It could be argued that “Kandor” as a whole represents either Kelley defanged by his own success, or perhaps increasingly idealized visions of a preposterously idyllic (though vague) fantasy world. While much of Kelley’s work on display at PS1 also seems to have taken years to complete, the “Kandor” series contains such a profusion of iterations that one must ask why; what exactly was Kelley trying to explain that he felt wasn’t accomplished in the second, or seventh, elaborate installation piece? It is curious to be thrown into such an epic maze of similar—if not outright repetitive—pieces, when this is an artist so celebrated for variety, not obsessive rumination.

The iconic “Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites” (1991–99) is typical of Kelley’s catalog: dark, epic, critical, meticulous—but undeniably humorous at its core. The work immerses the viewer amidst overwhelmingly large, color-sorted masses of stuffed animals suspended from the ceiling of a harshly bright room, the walls flanked with outrageously huge, candy-colored interpretations of automated air freshener units. Weaving through these eerie balls choked with fuzzy toys, it is jarring to encounter the occasional plastic eyeball, tiny appendage, or sewn-on smile—most face inward, packed together so tightly that every errant anthropomorphic feature demands attention. Kelley creates a palpable tension between the uncomfortably sterile (fresh scented!) room and these giant, mutated clots of dusty childhood artifacts. This piece epitomizes some of Kelley’s best-known artistic proclivities toward imbuing familiar objects with unsettling new connotations, humorously dissecting consumer culture, and using loaded symbols of childhood as depersonalized representations of memory. This meticulously presented chaos, mocking traditional sculpture with its absurd material choices contrasting the meticulous construction, is the type of darkly humorous work perhaps most readily associated with Kelley.

While Kelley famously revels in the abject and giddily indulges in childish crudeness, his least heavy-handed pieces may be the most transgressive. “A Continuous Screening of Bob Clark’s Film Porky’s (1981), the Soundtrack of Which Has Been Replaced with Morton Subotnik’s Electronic Composition The Wild Bull (1968), and Presented in the Secret Sub-Basement of the Gymnasium Locker Room (Office Cubicles)” (2002) is a maze-like, obsessive presentation of every school he attended. It offers a hauntingly dry catalogue of remembered spaces through flat diagrams, cheesy graffiti, and the subtle architectural alterations he has sketched in hindsight. Walking through this bleak mini-labyrinth of white paper and desk cubicles while subjected to faint audio that mimics the cacophony of a school hallway thoroughly evokes the deeply personal experience of remembering and revising the past. Somberness tinges many of the films and videos on display, but, in contrast, equally often Kelley exploits crass humor, absurdly lurid imagery, and melodramatic violence to explore memory. Yet in this piece it is the lack of aggressively puerile humor that makes the work approachable and potent. Kelley’s typical, exaggerated clownishness functions as a sort of protective, depersonalizing element, so in its absence the work feels intimate and raw.

Perhaps a fitting conclusion to the retrospective is the palpably detached “Mechanical Toy Guts” (1991/2012). This installation occupies an inconvenient corner space, in which two unremarkable plastic chairs sit among large shapes of black and white felt placed carefully on the floor, a cardboard box aptly labeled “Mechanical Toy Guts,” and, naturally, multiple mechanical toys, stripped to their bare skeletons, strewn around haphazardly. Some writhe and chirp, their pointless, rhythmic flailing and strangulated cries providing a pitiful soundtrack. The empty chairs, that box unexplored, and the chaotic arrangement of still-twitching robots (so antithetical to the immaculate groupings of “Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites,” in the adjoining room) collectively imply incompleteness, as though the chairs were just vacated and the toys awaiting careful rearrangement. Missing is Kelley’s pointed black wit; one expects the hand of a grumpy provocateur but instead meets a vague, indecisive emptiness. It is difficult to ascertain whether this transition is the result of a more subtle artistic approach, or the creative manifestation of Kelly’s mental state—one cannot help but wonder if the progress of his work mirrors the flux of whatever internal forces impelled him to commit suicide.

It is undoubtedly a challenge to condense this dynamic, broad career into a cohesive survey. The retrospective seems a fitting correlate to Kelley’s artistic narrative, weaving erratically between rooms, some perfectly chaotic, some oddly serene, and all meticulously wrought. With such an abundance of art, spanning mediums and apparent mindsets, it seems disappointing there is no clear conclusion, no monumental revelations. In contrast to Kelley’s own shocking exit, the show ends like a joke with no punchline.


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