Mike Kelley, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991-1999), plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint and disinfectant, overall dimensions variable; courtesy The Estate of Mike Kelley and MOMA/PS1
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As much as art criticism can be defined by rules, there is one rule that has proven fail-safe: Be skeptical of any exhibition that comes with a soundtrack taken from the haunted house attraction at an amusement park. Ambient drones, scattered voices (sometimes intelligible, often not), the generalized rustle of forces knocking about—leaven them with an underlay of rock music and imbue the proceedings with mood lighting, and you can wager that the resulting objet d’art is impossibly portentous. That it should also be of minimal aesthetic value is likely—or so one would think. But “Mike Kelley,” a thirty-year overview of the California-based artist’s work now on view in Queens at MOMA PS1, is the exception that proves the rule. That is, at least, the verdict of Holland Cotter at The New York Times. He writes that the exhibition is “a huge show that should be huge” and that the work is “great.” Cotter doesn’t mention the exhibition’s audio component. Given his track record as cheerleader for the temporarily outré, maybe Cotter is inured to such things. For some critics, spooky noises are par for the course.
Cotter’s “great” recommendation is prefaced by a description of Kelley’s art as “perfectly horrid.” This phrase isn’t a condemnation. It is high praise. Kelley is among the more notable purveyors of “abjection,” a school of art dedicated to exploring the furthest reaches of anomie. Add to this brew the disappointments of childhood, as well as obligatory homages to seamy sex and bodily functions, and you’ll have an idea of the overriding tenor of Kelley’s vision—a chilly admixture of nihilism and nostalgia, of sentimentality glossed over with rank self-indulgence. “My entrance into the art world was through the counter-culture,” Kelley wrote, “where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and ‘pervert’ it to reverse or alter its meaning.” Admirers laud the “unashamed intellectuality” of this “giant,” of his Barnum-esque embrace of physics and metaphysics, social constructs and gender identity, punk rock and Superman comic books. PS1 extols Kelley’s “dark and delirious” exploration of the “fault lines between the sacred and the profane.” Hardly an exhibition of contemporary art comes down the pike without high-flown theorizing. Kelley had no small role in codifying its parameters.
Mike Kelley, Pay For Your Pleasure (detail) (1988), oil paint on Tyvek; courtesy MOMA/PS1
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The work that typifies Kelley’s vision—“oeuvre” isn’t right word given his stylistic capriciousness—is Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), a series of towering banners featuring painted portraits of poets, philosophers, artists, politicians, and religious leaders emblazoned with quotes specific to the individual pictured. Affectlessness of craft coincides with the cynicism of the accompanying sentiments (often taken out of context). A perfect marriage of form and content, you might think, but Kelley’s miserabilism—there’s no other word for it, really—places him above such potentially redemptive concerns. “Everything bad that happens happens because of a conscious, intelligent concerted ill-will”—this statement from Antonin Artaud defines Kelley’s distinctive brand of tunnel vision. Kelley mandated that any institution displaying Pay for Your Pleasure include an artwork made by a local criminal. At PS1 this honor goes to Arthur Shawcross, also known as the Genesee River Killer. Shawcross raped, killed, mutilated, and claimed to have cannibalized his victims—most of them prostitutes, but also children. Donation boxes for victims’ rights groups, another Kelley mandate, are placed nearby. Does a wan nod to empathy compensate for sick sensationalism? “Since no pleasure is free, a little ‘guilt’ money is in order.” We’re all implicated, don’t you know.
The novelty of PS1 as a cultural institution lies in its former role as a public school and the degree to which it retains an institutional grittiness. Much of the building has been left “as is,” replete with weathered surfaces, cavernous spaces, period linoleum flooring, and raw, unfinished rooms. (The basement galleries are an irresistible draw for children thanks to their scariness.) A self-conscious romanticism is inherent in the decor of PS1 and, as such, often trumps the art to which the museum is ostensibly dedicated. Kelley, being a consummate showman, holds his own against this setting. His pieces—through scale, yes, but also force of will—dominate the surrounding spaces. Whether using means that are traditional (oil paint), technological (light boxes, gas tanks, projections, videos), homely (stuffed animals retrieved from a thrift shop), or piecemeal (color-coordinated mosaics), Kelley deals in brutalist theater—a my-way-or-the-highway descent into ugliness. Art as engagement? Forget it. To paraphrase an old New Yorker cartoon, Mike Kelley suffered for his art and now it’s our turn. Kelley’s work, in its insistence on sensory overload and emotional submission, is as unremitting and slick as a Hollywood blockbuster.
Mike Kelley, Mike Kelley as the Banana Man (1981); courtesy The Estate of Mike Kelley and PS1/MOMA
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Unlike the typical Hollywood product, however, Mike Kelley—the artist, not the exhibition—didn’t have a happy ending. The “tragic death” mentioned in an introductory wall label is an elision meant to obscure, out of curatorial politesse presumably, the artist’s suicide last year at the age of fifty-seven. Knowing this biographical particular can’t help but color one’s perception of the art, but even friends who weren’t aware of Kelley’s passing found themselves disconcerted—“moved” seems too positive an emotion in this context—by “Mike Kelley.” Whatever else you can say about the man and his art, this much is true: He wasn’t a con man out to milk the prestige of art. He wasn’t, in other words, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst or Banksy or fill-in-the-blank. There is, at the core of Kelley’s art, something real—something unappetizing, sure, but also genuine. Sincere self-disgust is better than the usual posing, but not much better and, from all appearances, not good at all for Kelley. Perhaps we should be grateful that Kelley found an outlet for his demons—for a time, anyway. Those of us disinclined to indulge (or celebrate) life’s miseries are free to seek our pleasures elsewhere.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of The New Criterion.