FBC! is overjoyed to host our foreign correspondent Grant Wahlquist today, reviewing the Mike Kelley retrospective currently held at MoMA PS1 in NYC. The exhibition originated at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam last year and had a greatly reduced iteration at the Pompidou Center this summer, and will have a final stop at MOCA in Los Angeles in March 2014. All images and text ©Grant Wahlquist, 2013.
A long-time acolyte of FBC, I was intrigued by this blog's coverage of the Mike Kelley retrospective in its two European incarnations. As a former curatorial assistant and sometime critic, the idea of chronicling how a show mutates as it encounters diverse cultural and institutional contexts struck me as a productive exercise. Unfortunately, the great FBC herself is unable to make it to New York to see the next iteration that recently opened at PS1, so you'll have to put up with me as I attempt to continue this delightful blog's continuing coverage of the retrospective.
First, the PS1 show is massive. Billed as "the largest exhibition of the artist's work to-date," the exhibition includes well over 200 works from the beginning of Kelley's career to the very end, and the entirety of PS1 is given over to the show. I'm pretty familiar with Kelley's work (although not nearly as much as FBC herself!), and was continually surprised by work I hadn't seen before.
When you enter the first floor, you are greeted by a short introductory wall label and Entry Way (Genealogical Chart), 1995, a Kelley-ized version of the signs you often see when you enter a small town notifying you of the existence of a Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, etc. In the next gallery to the immediate right, PS1 has installed Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991-99, MoMA's spiffy new Kelley acquisition. Though an impressive work, it would have been better installed later in the exhibition, after viewers were acclimated to the history of Kelley's use of stuffed animals. This brings me to my first issue with the show: it's not installed chronologically. Though portions of the show group works in loose chronological conjunction, or by project, the show does not track Kelley's career from beginning to end. Instead, a museum guide notes that the exhibition "is organized to underscore the recursive nature of Kelley's work. Kelley returned time and again to certain underlying themes ..." This is true as far as it goes, but wouldn't that point better be made if the work was viewed from beginning to end, so viewers could see the progression and mutation of ideas and themes from one body of work to the next? Instead, I worry that viewers less familiar with Kelley's work will come away from the exhibition without understanding how Kelley's practice grew and evolved. Often, Kelley initially addressed a particular topic, theme, or medium in a compact but powerful form, and later expanded or multiplied that format to draw out its full potential, working a strategy over and over until he had exhausted its possibilities. This is one of the aspects of Kelley's practice that, in my mind, marks him as a genius (a word I don't throw around often). However, instead of showing it to be the logical extension of a particular trajectory in Kelley's practice, skipping to Deodorized Central Mass leads to reduced appreciation of its significance and meaning. This problem persists throughout the exhibition.
Another example of this problem is a series of galleries dedicated to Kelley's Kandor works on the other side of the first floor. This series of galleries could be a show in itself (hint, hint to some small but ambitious university gallery), providing excellent examples of this body of work. Unfortunately, I worry that the significance of this work is not fully understood by either general audience members or the critical press, as it is introduced without much context and instead appears as a series whiz-bang-gee-whiz objects. Take, for example, Holland Cotter's review in the New York Times: "[The Kandors] date from after the time Kelley signed on with the Gagosian Gallery in 1995. He was now a star with a big budget, and the work suddenly looks expensive, machine-tooled, overproduced. The Kandors have the luxury-line gloss of Jeff Koons junk art. What saves them is that they have Kelley's history behind them."
First, I patently disagree that the Kandors are overproduced. Rather, I see this body of work as some of the most formal and elegant of Kelley's career, simple but filled with pathos and psychological complexity. But Cotter is right that, unmoored from the history of Kelley's career, they do appear anomalous and I understand why their power was lost on him given the lack of context. As Kelley began the series in 1999 and returned to it repeatedly, again, a chronological organization would have benefitted viewers immensely. (Question: does any retrospective benefit from being installed other than chronologically?)
The first floor also contains two small galleries devoted to video (collaborative works and Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1), and a small room adjacent to Deodorized Central Mass containing Mechanical Toy Guts, 1991/2012, one of Kelley's last works. Locating that work next to Deodorized Central Mass shows Kelley's continued engagement with stuffed animals as medium, but the juxtaposition (stuffed animals in one room, guts in the other) is too cute curatorially for my taste. In another gallery, Kelley's "Felt Banners" share a space with A Continuous Screening of Bob Clark's Film Porky's (1981), the Soundtrack of Which Has Been Replaced with morton Subotnick's Electronic Composition The Wild Bull (1968), and Presented in the Secret Sub-Basement of the Gymnasium Locker Room (Office Cubicles), 2002. An amalgam of items and ideas left from Educational Complex, 1995, the piece is an excellent example of how Kelley revisited and transformed bits of previous work into new and exciting works. However, I wonder if the space could have been better used by Sublevel, 1998, especially since the exhibition catalogue contains an excellent essay by George Baker about that work, and it's nowhere to be found in the show.
Last but not least, one of the first floor hallways is festooned with more banners, this time in fabric and also used in a performance at one point (photographs of which are hung adjacent). This brings me to one of the interesting but also problematic aspects of the show: the presentation of Kelley's work, which frequently treats issues of institutions, particularly educational ones, in a former school. At first, I found the sight of Kelley's banners and other educational themed works at PS1 exciting, but eventually, I tired of it - when something is already so present in the work, the additional "neat" factor felt a bit too much. That said, PS1 gave more space to the show than any other New York institution likely would have, and they refrained from milking this connection for the rest of the show.
There were some fantastic works installed in PS1's basement. First, some sound works (The Peristaltic Airways, 1986, and Yummy Puffy Mommy Yoni, 2008), were located in out of the way stairwells, an installation strategy that used PS1's particular history and peculiarities to the work's advantage. PS1 also installed From my Institution to Yours, 1987, a fantastic example of Kelley's continued engagement with and commitment to labor and workers. The piece contains two parts: a large, room sized installation featuring the emblem of a clenched fist and slogans encouraging the viewer to storm the gates of the institution, and a battering ram located in front of the museum's offices. The two are connected by a ribbon. Putting aside the irony of a guard telling me I could not even attempt to navigate around the battering ram (much less pick it up and do some damage), I found the piece very compelling, and it is one I'd never seen before. Last but not least, the basement cinema space was hosting screenings of a number of video works, including one I'd never seen before and really enjoyed (unfortunately I did not grab the title, but it was ceramic objects acting out a play in rhymed verse).
The museum's second floor is largely devoted to Kelley's works from the 80s and 90s, as well as a large gallery containing an excellent installation of a number of works from Day is Done. The works on view include works from (this is not an exhaustive list): Educational Complex, 1995; Half a Man, 1987-93; Empathy Displacement, 1990; Incorrect Sexual Models, Sack Drawings, and Lump Drawings, 1987; Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile, 1985-86; Reversals, Recyclings, Completions, 2002; Monkey Island, 1982-83; The Sublime, 1984; Half a Man, 1995; Blind Country, 1989; Endless Morphing Flow of Common Decorative Motifs (Jewelry Case), 2002; Hermaphrodite Drawings, 1987; Kelley's works from Documenta IX and associated schematic drawings; Two and Three Dimensions, 1994; Lumpenprole and Agitprop, 1991; and Horizontal Tracking Shots of a Cross Section of Trauma Rooms, 2009. Each gallery generally lumped work together by project or performance (i.e. an entire room for Plato's Cave), and wall labels helpfully noted not only when the work was first exhibited/performed, but who the collaborators were and where it was shown. However, the work was still not really chronologically displayed, and there may have been too much of it. I adore Kelley's work, but even I felt a bit exhausted by the end of this floor, and also worried that I was not able to give all of the work the attention it truly deserved because of that exhaustion. I commonly heard others at the museum saying, "Wow, this guy was really prolific," "Wow, this is a lot of work." I worry that a viewer less invested in or familiar with the work would have felt a bit lost, and might have benefited from a slightly more focused presentation.
The museum's third floor is devoted to Kelley's earliest works as well as some work from the 2000s. Works from the following are on view (again, not an exhaustive list): Black Out, 2001; The Banana Man, 1983; Garbage Drawings, 1988; Early Performance Objects, 1977-79; Birdhouses and Missing Time,1978-79; Personality Crisis, 1982; Pay for Your Pleasure, 1988; Memory Wares, 2000-10; Abuse Report, 1995/2007; The Secret, 2001; and Rose Hobart II, 2006. The drawings, objects, and videos of Kelley's performances form the 1970s and 1980s are amplified by images of pages from his notebooks that describe the evolution of each project. Again, I really wish these works had been placed at the beginning of the exhibition, as they offer an interesting window into Kelley's process. In general, I found the photographic works form Black Out especially good.
If you get the impression reading this post that, by the end of it, I am a bit too exhausted to go into much detail, you are correct. Unfortunately, that was also how I felt by the end of the show - amazed, sated, happy, thrilled to see so much good work, but also a bit worn out and guilty, as there was so much work to see. Again, I am thrilled that PS1 mounted such a large, complete show (with a few exceptions - why no Craft Morphology Flow Chart?), but there were some minor works that could have been excised to tighten the presentation - and mind you, I'd prefer a minor Kelley to a major work by most other artists. I will definitely need to go back and spend more time with the work, perhaps on January 5th, when the museum is hosting a listening party for Kelley's music, or on December 15th, when Rachel Harrison, William Pope L, and Joe Scanlan will have a panel discussion. And hey, maybe I'll complete FBC's coverage and see the work again when it travels to Los Angeles!