Two weeks remain until the final curtain falls on the landmark Mike Kelley retrospective at MoMA’s PS1 ending February 2nd (so get your butt over to Long Island City if you have the chance!). Bringing together over 200 works, from early pieces made during the 1970s through 2012, the exhibition is, to say the least, MASSIVE, occupying the entire museum. This exhibition marks a lot of firsts for Kelley, it is not only the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s life’s work in over 20 years, but he is the first artist to ever have a solo exhibition at PS1. Serving as the most perfect venue, the former school – turned contemporary art museum would no doubt have earned the approval of the late artist (Kelley committed suicide at the age of 57 in January 2012) whose oeuvre was indebted to adolescence.
Riding in the wake of rave reviews from the New York Times and the New Yorker, the show which opened on October 13, 2013, is a must-see…however no one said it would be an “easy”-see. The show itself, has been described by many as a “marathon;” in which endurance is needed not only in the physical sense, to navigate the entirety of the building, but also mentally in order to withstand the “unfocused” cacophony of “sleazy,” “stress-inducing” artworks within this “adult” playhouse as described in more negative reviews of the show. (Reviews here and here.)
Mike Kelley’s work, most certainly, is not for everyone, but even if it doesn’t comply with your preconceived notions of what art “should” look like, you have to give the guy some credit for not being afraid to “go there.” Often referred to as a “bad boy,” (though Kelley will deny his art and behavior as “bad” in an Art21 interview, which you can watch below) Kelley was one of the forefathers of appropriating objects from low-brow suburban culture into his art, objects which were previously not considered art. However, Kelley took his work one step further and went beyond the cute surface of the kitsch. He carefully manipulated familiar objects making them uncanny – slightly unfamiliar, but yet completely unsettling. Objects such as stuffed animals or birdhouses that we automatically associate with cuteness, innocence, and sentimentality were violated and transformed into something unsettling, perverted, and dark. This dualism, though, is what makes Kelley’s work so intriguing. It’s a battle between high-brow and low-brow culture/art, the beautiful and the grotesque, fallacy and truth, the sacred and the profane, good and evil and so on…
At a glance, one would most likely assume that Kelley was a fan a pop culture due to his shameless usage of mass culture memorabilia in his work, but, on the contrary this was not so, “I think it’s garbage,” Kelley declared in an interview for Art21. Growing up in suburban Detroit, Kelley quickly became acquainted with the language of pop culture, and though he didn’t like it, he also realized it was something everyone could understand.
…”that’s the culture I live in, and that’s the culture people speak. I’m an avant-gardist. We’re living in the postmodern age, the death of the avant-garde. So, all I can really do now is work with this dominant culture and flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure it, expose it— because popular culture is really invisible.” -Mike Kelley
When we take a closer look at Kelley’s work it is clear that he did not glorify pop culture in any way shape or form. In actuality he defiled these objects in order to expose and manipulate their meaning. Like I mentioned before, it is the uncanny nature of these objects, simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, that allows Kelley to explore themes such as American class relations, sexuality, repressed memory, and religion with such effectiveness. It is nearly impossible for one to look at Kelley’s work without experiencing these contradictory feelings. In his works such as “Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites” or “Pink Shadow,” unassuming stuffed animals send sweet twinges of nostalgia down our spines as familiar childhood mementos greet us with their soft demeanor. However, at a second glance their soiled nature becomes ever present, as their matted, discolored coats seem to reek of something foul. Bundled, and sewn together in erotic positions we become concerned and distressed that our objects of childhood innocence are now representations of sexual pleasure. And though we know we shouldn’t, like a gruesome car crash, we can’t help but stare.
“My entrance into the art world was through the counter-culture, where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and ‘pervert’ it to reverse or alter its meaning… Mass culture is scrutinized to discover what is hidden, repressed, within it.” -Mike Kelley
Kelley’s work yanks us around violently, making us watch when we don’t want to, making us see what we try to ignore, and making us feel uncomfortable in the face of innocence – stuffed animals, cartoons, and crochet will never be the same.
Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1 closes February 2, 2014. If you don’t get the chance to see the exhibition, check out this video from the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam of the show before it traveled to New York.