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by Astrid N. Korporaal

How do you create a line-up of masterpieces for an artist whose aim was to be a failure? This must have been a question on the mind of Eva Meyer-Hermann when curating Mike Kelley’s retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Yet it is not so strange that the museum is re-opening with this show after nine years of refurbishment. Walking through the exhibition, which mercifully is not organized in any linear way, but instead follows underlying themes in the works Kelley made between 1974 and 2012, what stands out is not only the variety of his work, but the remarkable amount of connections and influences to be found with an international array of artists. An outsider among outsiders, Kelley’s fascination with the sub-cultural combines a unique aesthetics and sense of humor in a way that invites associations with the works of artists as diverse as British artists Tracy Emin or Jeremy Deller and LA-based contemporaries such as John Baldessari or Paul McCarthy.

Mike Kelley, Wallflowers, 1988, Acrylic on paper, 2 parts, each 187,96 x 160,02 x 5,08 cm. Photo courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles.

Kelley (1954-2012) certainly was the master of a strange science, which involved ignoring or at least deliberately misunderstanding established categories and codes of conduct. For example, his first solo show in New York in 1982 featured the installation Monkey Island, which composes a sexually tinted cosmology of insects and primates by using the strategies of juxtaposition and exaggeration found in both comics and scientific illustrations. In this travelogue of the body, abstract symbols such as two circles can transform into the buttocks of a chimpanzee (though perhaps not back again), only to mutate into giant insect’s eyes.
In much of Kelley’s work, the artist’s mediation is a form of transgression. Dreams and desires interrupt and ridicule the systems of classification set in place to order our lives, in an aptly described “clusterfuck” of the imagination. As many have said before, the personal is political, and in the case of Mike Kelley his strongest weapon may have been his eye for humour, banality and failure in everyday situations. Using materials associated with the family sphere, play, and recreation such as birdhouses, toys, quilts and fabrics Kelley separated himself from those feminist artists appropriating these materials in relation to their personal biographies. Instead, he used these materials to explore their role in shaping and structuring culture and human behavior on a broader level. In a banner that is part of a series referencing university pamphlets, the image of a huge cookie jar is combined with the text  “Let’s think about disobeying”. The work’s simplicity is its strength, as it addresses the naturalized associations of the languages we use in everyday life in a humorous way.

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages Of Sin, 1987, Stuffed fabric toys on afghans on canvas with dried corn; wax candles on wood and metal base, 243,8 x 322,6 x 15 cm and 132 x 58 x 58 cm. Photo courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles.

In some of Kelley’s most recognizable works using hand-made stuffed animals, these objects’ associations with innocence and childhood are paired with impressions of violence and sexuality. A disturbing combination of a traditional quilt and a cartoon orgy, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid is made up of dozens of stuffed animals sewed together. The humour in this work, or Arena #10 (Dogs) – a colorful arrangement of dogs, snakes and sausage-shapes sewn together front-to-back - has to do with the combination of surprise and discomfort these hybrids bring out in us. Kelley is the expert in combining the extreme contradictions of a culture in order to reveal their shadow side, such as the repressive elements of tradition or the “debt” implied by gift-giving.
The worn and scruffy appearance of the animals is important because it is both a sign of the care put into their making and of their possible misuse. The way Kelley treats them, arranges them, is almost-human. This is the uncanny or monstrous feature of the objects; not that their strange expressions are blank or empty, but that they are precisely a reflection of ourselves, perhaps even a more true representation of our inner desires. Like Frankenstein’s monster, these installations are composed of fragments; a disjointed, incomplete picture of humanity which nevertheless has the power to strike a chord. These are objects made by adults, and their lives seem to say something about ours.

Mike Kelley, Pay For Your Pleasure, 1988, installation view, dimensions variable. Photo courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles.

With his art, Kelley asks us what it means to be a deviant in contemporary society. The work Pay for Your Pleasure is something like the moral version of Bruce Nauman’s neon corridors : walking down a hallway designed to stimulate contemplation, with walls covered in large, multi-colored portraits of historic artists and writers, each portrait is joined with a quote celebrating the destructive, vicious or murderous powers of ar tistic genius. In each institution where it is shown, the work must include a painting by a local inmate, specifically one convicted of murder. The viewer is confronted with a pantheon which is broken down just as it has been built up, and the question which returns is this: what are the pillars on which we build our society?
This practice of making the commonsensical visible, while at the same time negating or questioning it, is also applied to the language of art. Part of what creates the value of art is the fear that we are somehow being tricked, that there is some inside joke that we are missing. What Kelley makes visible is precisely this trick, the joke behind the artwork, in a way that is not cynical but adds something of meaning at the same time as it is stripped away. One of his more recent projects, Horizontal Tracking Shot of a Cross Section of Trauma Rooms, combines images of Color Field painting with YouTube videos of crying and humiliated children. In a parody of the emotional power that these paintings are supposed to exercise, the abstract modernist tradition is linked to experiences of trauma and repressed memory, opening the works up to alternative interpretations and experiences.

Mike Kelley, Catholic Birdhouse, 1978, Painted wood and composite shingles, 55,9 x 47 x 47 cm. Photo courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles.

Doors and boxes return as metaphors for the paths society paves for us, the categories in which culture is formed. Already in his early Birdhouses made as a student at CalArts, themes of “entry” and of “fitting in” are playfully combined with a minimalist aesthetic and the blandness of common craft objects. The meaning of the work emerges from the friction between these elements, and the way they negate the connotations of each, in order to create the possibility for something new to emerge. Something as innocent as a door – as invisible as a door with a “no entry” sign – is revealed for its violence, and at the same time our imagination is activated. But Kelley’s work was not just about revealing hidden violence or repression, it also includes the discovery of hidden or forgotten agencies. The work referred to above, From My Institution to Yours, was originally conceived as an installation for the LACMA where visitors would use a battering ram to knock down an “employees only” door to find the museum’s hidden collection: photocopied cartoons and jokes made or exchanged by the staff.

Mike Kelley, Estral Star #3, 1989, Tied, found stuffed cloth animals, 48,4 x 26,7 x 12,7 cm. Photo courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles

The power of Kelley’s work is that all of the visual languages he used were genuinely treated on the same level. This is why it is possible to get inside the artist’s mind and adopt his way of seeing the world. Women knitting on the train become passive-aggressive vixens and advertisements for New Year’s Eve fireworks are transformed into a sign of a sexually repressed culture. It’s like what Kelley loved about science fiction and conspiracy theories: a combination of the absurd and the plausible, which gives birth to imagination and potential. His works take what tends to slip between the cracks, and places it in the centre of contemporary culture. If we must position Mike Kelley, this is where he will be: squarely on the margins.


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