Mike Kelley 1954-2012

What a fucked up year.
I just heard that Mike Kelley died. They found him in his place in L.A.. He was one of our most important artists and he changed the way we see, what we think and maybe even what we hear. We’ve lost another one we couldn’t afford to lose.
Maybe the rapture has nothing to do with Jesus, maybe they’re beaming up the artists and intellectuals. So there goes a guy you can’t replace.

Here’s something I wrote a while back and an excerpt from a conversation we had in his studio.
It has been my experience that if a work of art, or a song, or even a person, confuses you at first, maybe pisses you off a little bit, then chances are it’s really, really good. That’s how I felt the first time I saw work by Mike Kelley at Metro Pictures in New York. I think I didn’t like the work, but I felt like that’s what it wanted. But I was fascinated and I still spent an hour looking at it, and I remembered the name Mike Kelley the next day.

I figure it took me about as long for me to like it as it took me to get “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones. Overnight? I think it took a while to change my brain, which is what all art worthy of that handle does. What was this stuff crawling across the floor and up the wall? Pop art takes on arte povera? It definitely had something to do with the Thelonious Monk tune “Ugly Beauty,” a tune doesn’t have any lyrics but looming tristesse circling the wagons.

Mike Kelley’s work embraces the extreme contradictions of American culture, beauty and ugliness, craftsmanship and happenstance, intelligence and mindlessness, reticence and aggression, tragedy and humor, yet there’s always a mysterious integrity at its heart that seems redemptive if in extremis.
Kelley’s career began at a time when the artists who had great success generally tended toward repeating themselves, creating a signature look that functioned like a brand or a band. But then Kelley’s generation—or let’s say, the best minds of Kelley’s generation—broke away from that trademarkaholic tendency. They weren’t afraid to put up a show that didn’t resemble the last, that changed it’s mind or lost it. Kelley’s style might appear to be all over the place-—Jerry Saltz termed his aesthetic “clusterfuck”—but I think the point is that Kelley’s style isn’t so much a look as it is a feel, a groove that combines roots in conceptual art and an unashamed intellectuality with a sensibility steeped in funk. And there’s one thing you can’t lose, it’s that feel.

Kelley started out in a band, a punk band before there was such a thing. He was a founder of the Detroit band Destroy All Monsters, a group that everyone heard about but few people actually heard. It was more than a band, but kind of a band as art movement. And just as that band pushed music across borders into strange new territory, his art has cut a wide swath through the formally and sometimes preciously defined precincts of art. He is an intellectual who engages his gut, a thinker who’s not afraid of stupidity.

Mike Kelley is a Los Angeles artist. His work resonates wherever it’s shown, but Kelley seems to thrive on and celebrate the sprawl and ordered chaos of that last-chance city, the city at the end. L.A. is in many ways the apotheosis of middle America, a hyperextension of mall culture, a metastasized suburb where the American Dream goes to get rich or die trying. I visited Mike Kelley in his studio compound in the Highland Park area—it’s a kind of anonymous, unpretentious place, in a neighborhood that’s a rich mix of ethnicities. You might find people from all over the world around here, but a quick look around Mike’s place and you know this is America.

Glenn: I was so struck by those pieces from the “Kandors” exhibition you had at Jablonka Galerie in Berlin. It’s such an obscure pop culture thing but it really hit me. It didn’t have to be explained to me. I immediately knew that it was Kandor the capital of Krypton, the planet that Superman comes from, and was shrunken in a bottle and kept in the Fortress of Solitude. What got you onto that subject?
Mike: That’s a long story. It’s something I’ve used metaphorically in my writings because it’s kind of a mix of a symbol for alienation and a city of the future. At the same time, it’s always had this kind of Sylvia Plath overtone to me but gussied up in sci-fi. I did this project in 1999 for a show in Bonn that was like one of those turn-of-the-century shows with a tech element to it. I decided to focus on some image of the future. I chose Kandor and kind of mixed it with these references to the Internet and its failure to bring people together physically and things like that. So I was using the city as a metaphor for that. And then I decided some years later to go back and just focus on Kandor as an object because, in the first show, there was no bottle. There were images of bottles and kind of a computer animation of the city, but when I did a little research into it, I was fascinated that Kandor had never been drawn the same way twice in the Superman comics. It was such an unimportant part of the Superman mythos that they never really did a city plan. So then it made it more interesting to me because that’s when I was already working on the “Educational Complex” sculptures. I was interested in architecture as it related to memory, and how unfixed faith is in memory, because I was trying to draw things from memory. I remembered floor plans, and they were all wrong—big patches were missing—and I was seeing that as repressed memory syndrome. So all of these things kind of jelled. Then I decided for the Jablonka show to focus more on the beauty. I made 20 different bottles, and they’re all supposed to be the same, but each one is unique. I thought that was an interesting paradox. That was the start of it.
Glenn: It’s kind of vague in my memory how the city of Kandor was shrunken and put in a bottle, but I guess it was Brainiac, the villain, who did it, right? So I don’t know if your role here is Brainiac the shrinker or Superman the savior.
Mike: Well, they changed the story over time to appeal to different generations, but, yeah, in the
beginning, the city was stolen from the planet by Brainiac and shrunken down. To tell you the truth, I’m not interested in that side of it. I’m not particularly a Superman fan. I just like the image of it—it’s like this idea of the past chasing you around. Here’s this guy, Superman, who leaves his home planet, and the whole thing gets blown up, and he’s stuck with this hometown, and he’s going to take care of it, and it’s going to last forever. That’s a horrible idea, that you are stuck taking care of your past. But that’s what everybody does. It’s also kind of like this H.P. Lovecraft shuttered room. It’s all locked away in the Fortress of Solitude, like the retarded brother or the monstrous, alien something or other that’s kept in secret—there are these overtones of secrecy.

Glenn: A lot of your work could be seen as creating monsters that are on the border of being cute and yet monstrous at the same time. You were in a band called Destroy All Monsters. Was monstrosity always an interest of yours?
Mike: Oh, yeah. Monstrosity is the most fascinating thing and maybe the most attractive—although I don’t think of my work as being monstrous. I might engage with things that to some people seem monstrous, but not often. When I think of my work, it’s more about structure and interplay, and there are all different kinds of subjects that I entertain.
Glenn: I think the monstrous element in your work has to do more with benign monsters than malignant monsters. The stuffed animals all put together are kind of a Happy Meal version of the two-headed baby that’s on the cover of the tabloid.
Mike: You know, it’s funny how I never noticed that. Monstrosity is something that I kind of came to with that project. It took me a while to see it because when I was first buying all of those craft objects, I was buying them because they were gifts. I was interested in the notion of gift giving. People were bandying this around in the art world at the time—gift giving as an escape from the commodification of art. So I started buying things that I knew were made by hand and to be given away, because all craft objects are generally made by somebody at home to be given to somebody else—you see something that’s handmade in a thrift store, and you know it wasn’t sold. At the time I started hoarding all of these objects, I had never really looked at dolls or stuffed animals or things like that before. Then I became really interested in the stylization of them and the proportions and features and things like that. And then I realized that they were monstrosities—it’s just that people are not programmed to recognize that fact. People ignore what these things really look like in order to see them as kind of generically human. They have signifiers of cuteness, like big eyes or big heads or baby proportions, and you empathize with those aspects of them. But I blew them up to human scale, and once you see them that way they’re not so cute anymore—like, if you saw that thing walking down the street, you’d go in the other direction. I became interested in them as things, as sculptures, but it’s almost impossible to present them that way because everybody sees them as symbolic. That’s what led me to all this interest in repressed memory syndrome and child abuse and all those kinds of things. It wasn’t my idea—I was told by the viewers that this is what these pieces were about. I learn a lot by what my audience tells me about what I do.

Glenn: I always saw those pieces as sort of about the breakdown of nature and the cracking of the genetic code and mutation.
Mike: They’re very easy to project upon. But I did a number of shows where I focused on different aspects of them. People tend to think about them in a very generic way, like, Oh, something monstrous linked to childhood. But my main interest in the monstrous was a sexual thing. I was always primarily interested in abstract monsters. When you first become interested in monstrous things, they’re just scary. But then it’s like, “Well, what kind of monsters do you like?” I think that reveals something. I always liked the Blob the most of any monster. When I thought about it later, I said, “Well, I liked it the most because I didn’t know what genitals looked like and I thought that’s what genitals must look like.” Monsters were very sexualized to me. So it’s not something purely repellent. It’s something mystifying and alluring.
Glenn: How did you get onto repressed memory syndrome?
Mike: Well, first it came from the response I was getting to working with these stuffed animals and craft materials, where people started going on about how this work was about child abuse. Like, what was my problem? Why was I playing with this stuff? Was I abused? Was I a pedophile? I was like, What are they talking about? I researched it and found out how culturally omnipresent this idea was. So since everybody was so interested in my biography, I thought I should do some overtly biographical work—or sort of pseudo-biographical work. That’s when I decided to make this model of every school I ever attended. Because I was thinking, I could make McMartin Preschool [the famous child-abuse repressed-memory case] and I could leave out all of the parts that I could not remember and then I would fill that in with recovered repressed memories, which would just simply be my personal fantasies. I would fill in the blanks with these fantasies. So that’s how it started.
Glenn: As the work progressed, did you remember more and more?
Mike: No, not really. Because the project wasn’t even about that. The whole thing was a fiction to begin with, so I wasn’t really interested in remembering anything. I don’t think there’s much to remember anyway. My biography is fairly dull, so it’s much better to fill it in with fiction. I found that I was filling in the blanks with pastiches of a lot of things that had affected me when I was a child—like cartoons or films or stories I’d read or things I’d heard. Or also just the kinds of stories you’d find in the literature of repressed memory syndrome, which are these horrible stories of abuse. I just mixed all that up.
Glenn: I’ve remembered an event and thought I’d said something when actually it was somebody else who said it or vice versa. I think, especially in writing, so much of plagiarism is completely unconscious.
Mike: I have that experience often. I’ve stolen things, and I know people have stolen things from me. I’m all for it. I think that’s the way things happen. That’s how you communicate with people. That’s how culture grows. And when there’s an amazing idea, you take it and run with it. I mean, you’re going to take it someplace else anyway. There are a lot of artists who’ve worked at that specifically in an interesting manner. One of my favorite writers is Comte de Lautréamont, and much of his writing is completely built on plagiarism. Who’s going to say that what he did was not different than what he plagiarized?

Glenn: One thing that the Internet seems to be doing is eroding the idea of copyright and originality. People are just taking bits of things and using them in a very free way.
Mike: Yeah, and it’s great because, at the same time, this kind of corporate entertainment is trying to stop that from happening. I think that Andy Warhol would not have had a career today. He would be sued every two seconds. He could not do what he did if he was doing it now because everyone has to think of some way to hide that they’re plagiarizing or they have to stick to the rules of how you can do it or it has to be underground or done in such a way that no one’s going to notice it.
Glenn: It’s given a lot of work to the lawyers.
Mike: I think that copyright is the worst thing for culture. If it’s illegal to respond to the ideas that
surround you in culture, and you’re bombarded every minute of the day with some kind of iconography or sound or some sort of mass-media sludge . . . Well, it should be illegal not to respond. Everybody should have to respond to it in some sort of overt manner. It’s like the William S. Burroughs thing, where you walk around with a tape recorder and constantly record the gray sludge that surrounds you. And you listen back to it, and you chop it all up so you recognize that it’s even there. They didn’t even know that white noise and all that existed until tape and photography came along, and it made people aware of all the stuff they were surrounded by that was invisible to them. We’re surrounded by invisibility, and that’s what I think art is about. I think art is about making things visible. You’re a mirror of the world—maybe a warped mirror in some ways.
Glenn: Is there still an avant-garde?
Mike: I think there’s only an intellectual avant-garde. I don’t think there’s a real avant-garde like there was in the early 20th century and up until around 1978. The avant-garde isn’t the basis for the art world anymore. It has no importance to art.
Glenn: But the idea of the avant-garde is also related to the notion that there was progress in the arts.
Mike: Not only artistic progress, but social progress.
Glenn: And that’s kind of fundamental.
Mike: Well, I don’t think anyone believes that anymore. How could you go through all these years of Republican rule and believe that there’s social progress? We’re only going backward. For a while, I was pretty sure we were going to have President Huckabee outlawing the teaching of evolution in schools.
Glenn: It’s funny that the art world is still considered to be leaning left when actually the Republican administration probably has had a lot to do with how the prices of art have risen to these incredible levels. Artists are a kind of mint for speculators.
Mike: I think that when the Republicans squelched the state supports for the arts, the arts became much more market-savvy. They had to support themselves. And maybe that’s one of the reasons that happened. Now, you have this incredible split in class, and the very, very wealthy people can buy anything they want and support the arts—but they’re only going to support the art that they like or they want. And they generally support things that they understand, like Pop Art. You don’t see big runs of conceptual art at the auction block. [laughs]
Glenn: No, but if you look at the Whitney Biennial or the opening show of the New Museum, at least it’s trying to look cheap.
Mike: Well, looking cheap has never really been a problem in art—like junk sculptures.
Glenn: No. Once the traditional idea of beauty didn’t rule anymore, then there wasn’t a problem, I guess.
Mike: But junk art is now considered beautiful. It has been for many years. Now we have three or four generations of people who’ve been making junk art, so it’s hardly avant-garde. But there are some signs of resistance. We have all these new kinds of neo-hippie communal groups making art and things like that. I think it’s interesting, although it’s also kind of retro. I see a lot of things that seem to be nostalgic for the old avant-garde, like redoing of works that have already been done, and I don’t know if it’s trying to go back to those values or if it’s simple laziness. It’s like with contemporary music—I hear a lot of things that sound like I’ve heard them before. It’s almost like, “Well, what’s the voice of this generation?” Maybe there isn’t one.

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