Mike Kelley: Why the Retrospective Format is Important
November 2, 2013
Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991/1999)

The works of Mike Kelley (1954-2012) currently fill MoMA PS1.  Taking over the entire museum space, the exhibition brings together over 250 works, dating from 1974-2012, underscoring Kelley's use of various mediums.  His oeuvre mines the archeological troves of American culture, questioning the role of art in relation to society.  Kelley's work reminded me that the distinction between the quotidian and the sublime is a forever shifting, porous dotted line.  Seeing so much of Kelley's work in one place allows the visitor to better understand the complexities and intellect lurking beneath the surface of what otherwise may appear to be silly, inane, or purely shocking artwork.

Above is one of Kelley's most visually recognized pieces, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991/1999), clusters of found plush toys sewn together.  The room is occasionally spritzed with deodorizing mist, so that the immersive work affects both vision and smell.  

While Deodorized Central Mass is often mentioned as one of Kelley's most iconic pieces, Kelley's work is more than just plushies.  Some of his drawings highlight imagery that questions identify and a sense of self.  Below are two drawings from a three-part triptych Kelley made in 1982 where he tries his hand at "tagging" his name in different fonts.


Below are images from Kelley's Kandor series.  Kelley re-imagines and interprets Kandor, a scaled-down version of the former capital city of Krypton, Superman's home planet.  In the comic book, the villain, Braniac, shrinks Kandor and hides the city under a glass bell jar.  At various times between 1999 and 2011, Kelley returned to Kandor, and created iterations of the miniature captive city, using a variety of materials that included lenticular light boxes (which alternately show empty and Kandor-filled bell jars), mixed media installations recreating the apparatus that keeps the city within the bell jar, and videos showing the swirling innards of vessels.  While the concept riffs upon a direct reference from American popular culture, the resulting work raises questions of the artifice of modern urban living.

Kandor 13 (2007)

A Vine-worthy (?) video of a laughing bell jar…did Kelley start the renaissance hipness of terrariums?

Pay for Your Pleasure (1988) has a more direct and politically charged message.  The installation corridor is lined with painterly portraits of 42 historical artists and philosophers.  Each portrait also features a quote from the figure exploring the ties among the creation of art, individuality, and the possibility for criminal intent and activity within this subversive act.  Kelley specified that each iteration of this installation also includes artwork made by a known criminal from the area, as well as a donation box for visitors to contribute money for local victims' rights groups.  The viewer of the installation questions her own opinion of the revolutionary attitudes apparent in the historical figures' quotes.  While many of the quotes focus upon the potential criminality of art-making itself--which elides the distinction of a criminal who has carried out violent acts separate from her art-making--I found my senses and logical thought processes overtaken by the work's powerful messages.

Installation view of Pay for Your Pleasure

Throughout the exhibition, ridden with messages and moments of sensory overload, one seemingly simple and innocuous picture ironically remained the most memorable for me.  Below is the last part of the triptych drawing referenced above.  The first two drawings are traces of Kelley signing his name in different fonts.  This is the third and last.  The title of the triptych is Personality Crisis (1982).  The exhibition is an homage to a man of many, complex ideas, and the breadth of his work should be viewed in full.


Organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Mike Kelley is currently at MoMA PS1 until February 2, 2014.