Sunday, April 7, 2013
Mike Kelley Retrospective At The Stedelijk Museum In Amsterdam.
Very special thanks to Ann Goldstein and the staff at the Stedelijk Museum for facilitating my visit.
Let me preface this by stating I am probably not the best person to review the Mike Kelley retrospective that ended in Amsterdam on April 1st.
For one thing I am too close to the subject, having spent a good chunk of my adult life researching his work for my Ph. D dissertation*. The latter was finished at the end of 2002, about ten years before Kelley's passing last year, meaning that even though I did follow what he was doing over the last decade or so, I didn't do it as closely as before.
For instance I didn't collect articles, catalogs, books and reviews of his latter work, I just contended myself with attending whichever exhibition he was having when I could and occasionally ask him a few questions to clarify things, but that was pretty much it.
So I have a rather in-depth knowledge of much everything he made between the mid/late 1970s to the late 1990s, and after that it becomes spotty. On the one hand I have too much knowledge of some of Kelley's work, but on the other I moved from being a scholar to simply a big fan of his, and I might not have the necessary distance to evaluate the exhibition; while in some instances I may actually know too much and become overtly critical about small things most visitors wouldn't notice. So generally speaking I have no idea how people not familiar with Kelley's work would react to seeing it for the first time, but I'm happy to report a friend who had never really seen it was really shocked by it. It's great to know the work can still be fresh that way!
Exhibitions are designed for "the audience" at large, and most of it isn't specialized. At the time of my visit, there had been 200,000 people who had visited the retrospective, and judging from what I saw most people seem to deeply enjoy the artworks. It's a pity Kelley didn't get to see how popular his œuvre has become, because as for myself I see it as a testament to his influence on the art of the last 30 years or so. Evolving from a deeply controversial artist whose work was often testing boundaries and expanding our conception of what art is to someone almost universally respected among his peers and loved by the public is no ordinary trajectory at any given time; to achieve that over the course of just a couple decades is even rarer.
This is the journey that was presented at the Stedelijk Museum for its reopening after several years of renovation and extension, inside its new spaces, from December 15, 2012 to April 1st, 2013.
I haven't researched which architects designed the extension, but from my point of view they don't know much about what is needed to install contemporary art exhibitions. The new spaces have enormously high ceilings but the surface of the rooms themselves isn't that large, which is always problematic for large-scale installations.
Unfortunately Kelley's work more often than not demands a lot of space, resulting in many instances in pieces being squeezed together when they would need some space to breath. This lack of wide floor space would also likely dictate what could be loaned in to the retrospective, as several major pieces were missing.
Now at any given time it's always difficult for a museum to get some loans due to many purely practical reasons (not enough budget, works loaned elsewhere, the childish tit-for-tat game played by museums worldwide, paranoid collectors trying to hide from their tax obligations, etc.) but I would surmise that the absence of, say, Frame and Framed... or Craft Morphology Flow Chart has more to do with lack of space and/or lack of shipping budget than any other "real" curatorial choice. The unfortunate result is that, from my point of view, some works that are not so seminal in Kelley's output seem to be highlighted while some others are missing that could give a deeper understanding of his artistic process.
The exhibition was installed on two different floors and started in the middle, with the felt banners, stuffed animals and paintings of the Half A Man project, Kelley's exploration of American stereotypes about masculinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a choice I found odd because if these are Kelley's most famous body of works, chronologically it doesn't make that much sense to begin with them.
The handy leaflet with floor plan of the exhibition explained that the retrospective while largely chronological strived to link thematic concepts within Kelley's work (in fact mostly one theme, the question of memory, its erasure and later fantasy reconstruction). While I understood what it meant when I saw the works I am not so certain it was so obvious to casual visitors?
After the visit I realized that the impression of confusion in the exhibition design is largely due to a common practice in most museums: curators design shows to be "read" left to right, as with reading books, whereas most visitors immediately turn to the right and wander from right to left, or counter-clockwise, so to speak. Everybody I saw in the exhibition who hadn't bothered with audio guides did exactly that - as I did myself - and therefore was treated to a super confusing way of looking at the work.
The confusion was deepened by the architectural layout, because there is no way within the space to go from any beginning to any end, whichever side you take first, without going via the middle, so I assume the curators did the best they could with what they had. Basically to go chronologically you had to go directly to the far left of the space, then walk back to the middle and then behind it, go back again and then right. Befuddling, eh?
So if, unlike me, you started correctly with the oldest works you were treated to the early Bird Houses, then various props related to Kelley's performances, then moving into the first hint of what were to become Kelley's later trademark large-scale works he called his "projects".
These were long-term explorations of various subjects usually initiated with, say, traditional Western philosophical questions but viewed through the lens of vernacular culture, such as The Sublime, or abstract grammatical concepts like "the possessive" (usually marked in English with 's - I indicate this because some terrible French translations in the 1990s substituted "possession" as in "demonic possession" for "possessive") with Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile.
Kelley's performances were never recorded except some audio for Plato's Cave... and the made-for-the-radio Peristaltic Airwaves, so the props and drawings are the only things that remain of what were mostly language pieces that integrated objects, noise and music.
A very moving thing about the props, aside from their small scale, is how perfectly crafted they were. Kelley was never a sloppy artist even when he worked with seemingly shapeless forms (he was a master of the blob!) or cheap materials, even in his early days when he didn't have much money and worked as a janitor to sustain his art practice. The Banana Man costume made for the video of the same name was particularly moving in that regard.
After this you were confronted with various works related to the Plato's Cave... and The Sublime projects, and then you could turn into the infamous Pay For Your Pleasure installation, a series of quotes about evil thoughts and deeds and portraits of famous artists, writers and musicians, installed in a long corridor and leading to a painting made by a local serial killer (each time the work travels a painting made by one has to be found - I don't know if/how they found one in Amsterdam). A donation box is installed at the entrance so the visitors can donate to a charity. It's a work that has been censored a few times, made in an era when American pop culture from James Ellroy to Bret Easton Ellis was obsessed with its psychopath serial killers, and confronting both the common delusion that artists are excused from their misdeeds because of their exceptional position in society as well as the redemptive/therapeutic qualities of art making for criminals. The work does plenty of other things as well, like squarely making fun of the illusory washing of one's conscience by donating to charity without really trying to solve any problem, an idea that comes no doubt from Kelley's visceral rejection of his Catholic upbringing, paying for one's pleasure being a reminder things such as the buying of indulgences.
The middle section of the exhibition was taken mostly by the various stuffed animal pieces, with More Love Hours Than Can Ever Been Repaid and The Wages of Sins, with a curious floor installation mixing the Arenas and Dialogues but all crammed together in a small enclosure, sadly, whereas Lumpenprole was majestically unfolding in an adjacent room. Things got a bit confusing with the various pieces for the 1992 Documenta in a nearby room, pieces that are not often seen but are mostly transitional between the stuffed animal ones and the next big project, the fake memory syndrome ones.
A weird thing happened to Mike Kelley as his work suddenly became more and more famous. He was subjected to the same process that often plague celebrities (something he wasn't, the art world of the time being significantly smaller than today and contemporary art then rarely reaching the mainstream outside of the periodical culture wars launched by the far-right) when their fans start projecting their increasingly weird fantasies on their idols and their output.
His work started to be stupidly misinterpreted, the same way a songwriter's lyrics can be deconstructed in crazy ways to mean anything at all.
Where a lovelorn, delusional music fan would think a song would be addressed to them and only them (something as anodyne as "I will always love you, Lee" ) and therefore allow them to start stalking their idol because the lyrics OBVIOUSLY indicate the musician's secret sexual orientation/contain secret Rosicrucian/Satanist/Nazi/Communist coded messages/location of Knight Templars secret treasures/message to aliens/sea monsters/white supremacists/wizards, etc. the casual art person would think that OF COURSE Kelley's work with stuffed animals was all about child abuse and THEREFORE, tada! Kelley would somehow send secret personal messages about his own autobiography**.
They would assume that Kelley was himself abused as a child, something he repeatedly denied all his life and there is no reason whatsoever to doubt his word, because he was generally not given to that kind of bullshit - he had no time for that.
If you look at the works themselves you wonder how people would come to this conclusion (OK they're dirty and smelly but damn! They're very funny and cute), especially since the very abundant literature about them explains how they came from the concept of gift-giving as a free act located outside of consumer society, in reaction to the post-readymade objects that populated the NYC art world in the 1980s (Koons, Steinbach most specifically, also reading Danto's Transfiguration of The Commonplace should illuminate the whole thing for you).
They were also used visually as a response to Barry LeVa's floor pieces, which in the late 1980s were still largely forgotten. So here's for the art context. As far as the general culture, Kelley was also interested initially in the exploration of masculinity in relation to crafts, more specifically with stereotypical gender expectations (sewing and knitting as "feminine" occupations and skills). That also launched quite a few battles along the lines of "is Mike Kelley a feminist artist" in various art publications of the time.
Now mainstream culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s was often obsessed with predators in general, concentrating its revulsion not only on serial killers but was also starting at the time to get focused on child abuse, molestation and incest (and nowadays pedophilia). It would be too long and complicated to get into that now, but suffices to say that when every biography of a dead actor or musician published in the 1990s mentioned the possibility of child molestation and abuse, the climate was ripe to appose this type of projection onto a visual artist's work where the materials used were old dirty toys. It's a bit harder to do with geometrical abstract paintings, but I'm sure if you try (not so) very hard you could also surmise Mondrian spent his childhood locked inside a square, or that Frank Stella made his black paintings because he couldn't afford buying more colors. Stuff like that is easy to make up.
Kelley's work was often reactive (a word I use instead of "reactionary" because in Europe the latter is loaded with right-wing meaning), usually responding to mainstream ideas in society or to general trends in art and counter-blasting them with tropes and ideas he saw riding below the general consciousness level but very present nonetheless, using visual cues taken from every day objects that were either mass-produced or hand-crafted. Sometimes he focused on certain well-known subcultures to do so, in other occasions he would study very specific customs and practices drawn from local or regional groups but that could be understood by everybody. He would also pick up on fads and trends gaining mainstream traction nationally and globally, such as fashionable psychological illnesses suddenly making headline news, like the so-called "recovered memory syndrome".
He initially picked up on that because of all the assumptions people made about his supposed abusive childhood, and decided to pretend he had effectively been abused as an artist through his rigorous formalist education (when he was effectively an adult) at the hand of none the less than Hans Hofmann whose theory of the "push-and-pull" in painting influenced the entire Post-War US art system, and by ricochet much later on was seen as the oppressive hand torturing Kelley out of his Surrealist influences to make him into a formalist painter. Hofmann, needless to say, died years before Kelley entered art school.
So it started more or less as a joke, but morphed into successive bodies of works, some of them really hilarious, some other totally outrageous, all of them loosely linked via the general theme of memory (recovered or not, fake or not). There were the aliens and UFO works (which I think are rather transitional, like the 1992 Documenta ones, helpful to kickstart a new phase in his art but not major artworks per se), the Memory Wares, highly sought-after by collectors but not as interesting as, say, Educational Complex, the white, Modernist maquette made from memory of all the places where Kelley had received some education, with holes cut out where he couldn't remember the spaces, pretending that if he couldn't remember them therefore they were the place where educational art abuse must have had occurred (obliged to, say, study 13th century tempera paintings instead of debased hippie posters or latter-day derivative Surrealists), or Black Out, a large-scale installation linked to his upbringing in suburbs of Detroit.
Most of these were represented at the retrospective, and loosely connected visually (the buttons and pins of the Memory Wares jumping into the broken china of Black Out. They make the process of accumulation present in Kelley's visual vocabulary more apparent, same with the use of pure abstraction as an obliterative gesture (begun with the Hans Hofmannesque monochromatic brushtrokes, followed by the holes in Educational Complex, etc.). The blown-up newspaper articles used in Black Out announce the blown-up high school yearbook pictures later used for Day Is Done (upstairs), and the stuffed animals of the 1980s and 1990s will be reused for a Voyage Of Growth And Discovery, his collaboration with Michael Smith (not represented in the exhibition) where the sculpture of the Burning Man recalls the John Glenn statue in Black Out. There were lots of things like this in the exhibition that I am very grateful for because they make some things more obvious to me, but I am not certain they were understandable for regular visitors.
In that context I could only regret the absence of Framed and Frame, Heidi ( with Paul McCarthy, one of his most famous works in Europe), Sublevel and a few other works like Exploded Fortress Of Solitude that concludes the Kandors project (also shown upstairs).
One half of the upper level was almost entirely devoted to a partial showing of Day Is Done, his huge project reconstructing activities such as theatrical projects depicted in old high-school yearbooks, activities that often imply sadistic and ritualistic aspects. It would have been impossible to show it entirely if only to get the loans, and the entire space of the museum would have been needed for that.
The Kandors were shown next, a decade-long project based on Superman's childhood city preserved in jars and its various depictions in the comics series. This is a part of Kelley's work I know the least about and am in the process of doing research on, so there is very little I can say about it at present except that in my opinion these operate a complete shift in his work (and I hope to explain that in the book I'm working on).
In the auditorium upstairs a selection of his videos was presented, alas when I sat down with the intent of watching them all (I spent hours at this museum...) there was a bit of a dysfunction and the Four Dance Baskets from Heidi for some reason looped for 45 minutes straight instead of the 15 indicated...
Generally speaking I felt the retrospective was organized with the idea of trying to pick up items from almost every single phase in Kelley's work, a very brave attempt to demonstrate the breadth, depth and scope of his entire output, but a very difficult one as many of the installations are too large to be shown together at any museum.
Similarly, the collaborations with various artists (Tony Oursler, Paul McCarthy, Michael Smith, David Askevold, etc.) could constitute an exhibition in themselves, so some of them are not represented. The sound works were blasted to a PA system while taking the escalator to go to the second level, something I enjoyed immensely myself but was thinking maybe having a room with lots of headphones and couches to stay in and immerse oneself in would have been really cool.
I think most visitors were left with the evidence that Kelley worked in a very large variety of mediums (drawings, paintings, installations, sculptures, videos, sound art, performances) and hopefully a sense of what a joyous iconoclastic artist he was in his practice.
My only regret (because nitpicking about which works should have been there is really a specialist problem) is that the catalog wasn't out when I visited the show. I had forgotten about that bad European habit of publishing catalogs way after an exhibition is over, and I deeply, deeply missed not being able to buy one.
The bookstore was selling the Phaidon Press monograph by the dozen, but 1) I already have it and 2) it was published a while ago, so recent work isn't represented. Hopefully the catalog will be out soon now, and I can't wait to buy it.
The retrospective ended with Kelley's very last work, not the house that is being completed at MOCAD in Detroit but the sound piece he made at The Box, Mara McCarthy's gallery in Los Angeles, shortly before he died. As a last work it is a bit anticlimatic , but also very poignant because I think it clearly signaled a phase in Kelley's process when his work was going through a transitional phase. He was done with the Kandors project, almost done with the house and therefore the "memory" one, and who knows what else he could have been onto next?
*Many people asked me why I never published my dissertation. The short answer is that it was written in French and that I moved back to the US almost immediately after I was done with the defense, and that translating oneself in a second language is arduous at best, not mentioning very time-consuming.
The other reason was that writing a Ph.D. dissertation on a contemporary artist like Mike Kelley at a venerable institution such as the Sorbonne University was a bloody nightmare through and through, and after getting my diploma I pretty much had it with French academia. Besides, offers from publishers weren't exactly forthcoming anyway.
I'm planning to write a new book on Mike's work, about one half of which will be based on my dissertation, the rest on new research. Stay tuned, and please forward all those great publishers' offers!
** As a side note, when I started researching my dissertation in the mid-1990s and met Mike Kelley, he informed me of these type of misinterpretation of his work; I was confounded because none of the research material I had and used (mostly catalog essays, magazine articles and exhibition reviews) mentioned it at all.
It's only when I started meeting people in the US art world and casually mentioned my project that I first heard them surmising it. Much later on I began to see this type of BS "in print" only when I came across some secondary market works offered for sale, with some casual note offered by the sellers to "explain" the work. It cascaded after Kelley's death when many people took to the internet and their blogs/tumblr/HuffPo to explain everything about Kelley's passing without bothering to do any research or even having any argument to present. Case in point: Kelley would have been responsible for the terrible state of today's indie's music via "his influence on Sonic Youth". Next thing we know, he would also have been the cause of the Beatles break-up, or even the Gulf War while we're at it. Needless to say that all those allegations of abuse are very painful to Kelley's family, and were deeply annoying for Mike himself when he was alive.