MOMA PS1 SPOTLIGHTS JOYOUS YET CYNICAL WORK OF THE LATE AND LEGENDARY MIKE KELLEY IN THEIR LARGEST RETROSPECTIVE TO DATE
Upon entering the Mike Kelley retrospective at PS1 MoMA (on view now through February 2, 2014), I am ushered into the Dome, and I get the vague feeling that fashion month hasn’t yet ended, as the audience is seated facing a raised runway. And in fact the models are wearing Kelley-designed costumes—silk ponchos printed with large humorously demonic graphics. But the models, the women with bells on their ankles and the men in boots, soon break out into an Anita Pace-choreographed dance, borrowing from pow-wows, head-banging, modern and ballet, to a loud, melodic Motörhead song. The similarity to Rick Owens’ recent stomp dance S/S ’14 runway show was evident, and one wonders why more designers wouldn’t choose to bring their collections alive in such an infectious way; Kelley’s 1989 self-portrait seemed to nod along knowingly as it bounced and rippled on one of the garments.
The rest of the show is also infiltrated with sound—from the faint hoots in the Alien Movie Poster room to the Recording of the Peristaltic Airways on KPFK Radio in 1986 in the Felt Banners room, to the happy guitar music in the room full of Mechanical Toy Guts (dreamy stuffed animal mobiles). Having seen Kelley’s paintings and sculptures in the silence of the museum in the past has felt disingenuous, like seeing graffiti in a white box gallery. At PS1, by staying in the Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile room long enough to read the text of each painting, one is rewarded by hearing emphatic readings of each text over the Sonic Youth show that originally accompanied it, pushing the script past the territory of rampant irreverent thoughts.
A number of Kelley’s videos from throughout his career are screened throughout the exhibition, most of which employ the campy humiliating costumes and flattened, projected voices of school plays, a signature since his first short, where he plays a perverted version of the Banana Man character from Captain Kangaroo. His earnest self-abasement, lewd jokes and sarcastic use of available technology (the super-imposing of traveling characters over the bubbling surface of a pizza, or of fruits and vegetables spinning around his naked body) determined the style of the best 1990s underground music videos and comedy sketches. The hysterical punch lines, while always having been incredibly dark, now seem to hold even more gravity after Kelley’s suicide last year. In Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene), two men—one probably standing in for Kelley, and the second ostensibly standing in for a judgmental minimal artist—argue about a horrible incident that one has obviously blocked from memory. The minimalist begins to describe the space inside an oven as a soothing ocean, or outer space, generating love. The Kelley-ish man resists, saying that an oven is what killed the Jews and Sylvia Plath, and that it will surely be the end of him as well. After the men turn the oven on and gaze into the blackness, the minimalist says it can be a freedom and an escape, in which one does not have to face his fears—those too weak for this planet can cross over into a world of intelligence, art and beauty. Sylvia Plath appears as an angel to take his hand. The peaceful transition is interrupted when the minimalist, who has apparently wanted to have anal sex with pseudo-Kelley all along, says fiendishly, “Sylvia might have your hand, but now I’ll have your ass,” and the film ends with a frightened scream.
The next eight rooms display Kandor, an installation of sculptures and videos of bell jars, some quickly swirling with elusive sparkles, others with colorful cityscapes inside, a video of Superman reciting Sylvia Plath poems, and two gas tanks lurking behind partitions.
Another sound piece over by those now-famous salvaged stuffed animal photos and sculptures has Kelley’s now-familiar Midwestern/Californian accented voice melodramatically delivering a soliloquy. Kelley asks his mother to help him end it all since his lover is not here. He tells of a doctor’s warning: The brain will begin a softening process in old age, so best to get a morphine prescription now and save the tablets—this narrative is actually too chilling for me to bear, as it bears the least veiled hints towards the still murky details of Kelley’s death. The stereo playing the loop is roped off, and within the enclosure a dirty white plush seal stands on its nose. The next room has more morbid/adorable toy scenarios, including drawings of some of the animals, propped up over their sized black coffins, with windows to see a section of their tiny pressed faces.
It is hard not to think of Kelley’s oeuvre as clues to the mystery of his own short life. The retrospective, a larger collection of his work than has ever before been displayed, gives the viewer so much data sorted in one place like a massive crime scene—there is even a blown up “Suspected Child Abuse Report,” filled out apparently by Jablonka Galerie about Kelley, detailing a youth raised by zombies in Michigan. There are maybe a hundred blue prints of varying complexity, culminating in Educational Complex, a very convincing architectural model of every school Kelley has attended, with organically shaped cutouts symbolizing “unremembered zones.” In an attempt to help the artist fill in these negative spaces, one starts to remember jokes about corn-holing on various floors, and massive swirling collages of tchotchkes are later taken apart and scrutinized in a glass jewelry case of themed rows of buttons, brooches and charms.
The installation of the epic Day is Done series was the only part of the show in which I felt disappointed, and it was because I’d seen the performance acted out while Kelley was alive. While it is fun to see the found high school yearbook photos that Kelley drew upon to devise the work, the gallery space is cacophonous and messy, appropriate perhaps for some other pieces, but not, in my opinion, for this one. I was lucky enough to have seen one of the last performances of this piece at the Judson Church a couple of years ago. The section he presented was a glorified, mixed up, sexualized high school half-time show in a basketball court. A long-time casual fan of the artist, I of course wasn’t surprised by the subject matter. What shocked, and thrilled me, for the duration of the hour-long show, was the fact that the dancers were exceptionally good, and the marching band smooth in their transition from jazz to metal to pop. The lighting made the mascots and other adolescent characters look actually beautiful—even sexy. As the artist went from shouting like a coach on the sidelines to joining the end of a conga line with a grin and flowered sun hat, the work felt like a chapter drawing to close. While the subversive sexuality and silliness was thankfully still present at PS1’s installation of Day s Done, the awkward tension and pointed humiliation was gone with Kelley. That tension is better felt in the four-hour film version of this piece, now showing in PS1’s Dome.
The retrospective stands up on its own but for those of us who have seen Kelley in the flesh, it is a memory map much like his Educational Complex piece. Back at the Judson Church, I remembered, it was as if Kelley had been able to shed his cynicism and create the pageant he had never been able to be a part of in his formative years. Meeting him after the show in his post-performance glow, seeing him smile so in spite of himself, is a memory I tried to keep close to my interpretations of this current formation, ignoring the urge to piece it all together with marked routes; it would be a disservice to Kelley’s brilliance to sum up each artwork as pavement towards his sad demise. Instead this retrospective is a slice of Kelley’s brilliance, in no way claiming to remember, fully, a life as stirringly faceted as this.