Remembering Mike Kelley, and an Inscrutable Indie Rocker

MONDAY sees the opening of the Mike Kelley retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The museum is only a few miles from where Kelley lives and worked. His work remains stirring and bitterly funny, and there was much good cheer from old friends and admirers excited to finally see so much work in the same place. But the fact that the artist — who killed himself about two years ago, could not attend lent an eerie quality to the whole thing.

I’ll post a proper review of the show as soon as I find one; for now, I’ll just say that the show – in the museum’s cavernous Geffen Contemporary space – seemed overwhelming to me in both the best and worst sense: kelley_featureIt will take something less frenetic than a press preview for me to really assess his painful, funny, oddball body of work. (I was very pleased to bump into, very quickly, former MOCA curator Paul Schimmel, one of Kelley’s most important advocates and closest friends; I’d expected that he was still in exile from the museum, which had forced him out.)

In the weeks after Kelley’s suicide, I wrote a story for Los Angeles magazine, on the artist’s life and death and legacy. I’ve known his work since it was used on the cover of Sonic Youth’s Dirty LP in the early ‘90s, but his body of work remains hard for me to describe. He painted, but was not really a painter, he drew, but it’s hard to think of him primarily for that; same with sculpture and filmmaking. (The show included some pieces from his Day is Done project, which has been hard to see on the West Coast.) He was a conceptualist, but one who loved materials and maked them – even if they were smelly, nasty stuffed animals – central to what he did. His career circled a number of themes – sexuality, Catholicism, consumerism, and so on – but used such a huge range of media it’s hard to think of a typical Kelley piece.

Speaking to his friends and colleagues, I was amazed at the impact that Kelley had made on people. Despite a history of serious depression and a growing frustration with the winner-tale-all spirit of the 21st century art world, he was no hermit.

This comes from my story:

Poet Amy Gerstler first encountered him around 1980, at an opening at the art space LACE, where Kelley was carrying around a volume of German Romantic poetry. “When you met him,” she says, “it didn’t matter how much art sense you had. You realized you were in the presence of something really ferocious and incandescent. He was kind of explosively charismatic. He was also scary-smart—he had a lot of energy, nervous energy.”

I’m not the only one who finds Kelley’s work maddeningly – or gloriously – ambiguous. Also from my piece:

The artist wasn’t focused on lush materials or technical control: Kelley was a deep-sea diver into the American unconscious, dedicated to what makes us uncomfortable. “He opened up the psyche of this culture, with its obsessions and insecurities,” says John Welchman, a UC San Diego art professor who has written extensively on Kelley. “Mike’s work was very layered. There’s something raw, but also humorous and ironic—and between those two extremes there’s half a dozen other layers.”

His closest friends saw it coming, but a lot of us were shocked when Kelley died. Filmmaker John Waters, who collects Kelley’s work and knew him as a funny guy who didn’t suffer fools, was startled by the artist’s death. “To me his work always satirized depression,” Waters told me. “All that stuff about recovered memory, building his childhood home to travel around… I thought it was something he had when he was younger, that he was commenting on it. I always thought that his humor would save him.”

More to come on Mike Kelley and this important show.

ALSO: The ArtsJournal site was hacked a few days ago and went down, so I missed posting some things I’d hoped to. Here is my interview with onetime Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, who’s currently touring. Malkmus — back in Portland after a few years in Berlin — remains a master of indirection.

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  1. says

    In work like Kelly’s, popular culture is castellated and presented as degenerate art which then becomes an act of high art through being re-contextualized. It’s discomforting because the banality of popular cultures takes on proportions and bizarreness that are horrifying. It’s also discomforting because of the ridicule of those who never had a chance to be whatever it is we define as culturally enlightened. There’s an element of sadistically exploiting the poor and uneducated to confirm our own superiority. Perhaps because of its Disney insecurities, this seems to have almost become a CalArts specialty. (Kelly studied there.)

    It could seem like an ironic reversal of the Nazi’s exhibitions of degenerate art where the roles were exchanged and the cultured intelligentsia was sadistically presented as inferior. In both cases, the dislocation and re-contextualization actually opens our eyes. Hitler’s degenerate art exhibits were far more popular than the exhibits of Nazi art. We see new things. All the same, it’s a bit discomforting that we define the distinctions in our own terms. Its acceptable to present the trailer park as degenerate, but a crime to present the intelligentsia with a similar method.

    Or is the relentless view of artists like Kelly and Waters a form of compassion, a way of looking at the truth with the hope that knowledge lights the darkness and that awareness brings change. Of course, they will tell us there’s no judgement and no agenda. That’s not cool. And yet one can’t help but see the condemnation. Or am I, as usual, missing something?

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