(or, Hanging Out with Pavlov's Dog in Plato's Cave: Some Scattered Postmortem Thoughts on Mike Kelley)
|Mike Kelley (third from left) with co-conspirator, 1968|
Something done in bad faith can be successful.
When I was in junior high school there was a contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to design a patriotic poster. I decided, along with a guy I shared a chemistry-class lab with, to enter the contest. From the very beginning we meant it as a joke. First of all, we agreed to collaborate on the poster so that neither of us would be responsible for the final outcome. Secondly, we were not close friends so we did not care about making each other look talentless. We couldn't have spent more than fifteen minutes on the poster, . . . We picked the most insipid subject matter and statement we could think of. . . We used the cheapest materials,…and painted it as poorly as possible. The flag was depicted as a crude series of stripes with one sloppy star and a totally unrecognizable [George] Washington was painted in a garish combination of chartreuse and green. We won.
-- Mike Kelley, from "Some Aesthetic High Points" (1992)
|Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile.|
Performance featuring Sonic Youth, NYC, 1986.
As all of the bio material has it: Mike Kelley had hailed from the Detroit suburb of Wayne, Michigan; where he was raised in a blue-collar Catholic household, his father being on the maintenance crew at a local high school, his mother a cook at an auto factory. From there he went to Ann Arbor to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1972, and soon joined up with a group of like-minded friends -- fellow art students Jim Shaw, Niagara, and Cary Loren – with whom he formed the band Destroy All Monsters. For Mike Kelley, the inspiration to form a band came from the outer-orbit psychedelic explorations of the late 60s, particularly that of Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as the sonic bombast and absurdist theatrics of The Stooges -- all of which he'd seen play around Detroit in the preceding years, each of whom had left an indelible impression on Kelley. Destroy All Monsters' freeform dadaist antics, however, didn't find a welcome audience in or around Ann Arbor. They were given few opportunities to perform around town, but reputedly made scores of home recordings. Of the cultural climate of Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, Kelley would later write:
"We had all been raised on the psychedelic excesses of the MC5 and the Stooges, and the general feeling of that time: that every form could be combined and all excesses were possible. Now we were in the dark ages. Detroit's economy had collapsed and taken with it its radical culture. Detroit was a dead city. And Ann Arbor, once the 'drug capital of the Midwest,' Eden to every unhappy teenage runaway, home of the SDS, the White Panther Party, and a thriving radical intellectual scene, was now slipping back into being a sleepy and conservative fraternity-row college town. All of the musicians of the previous generation were trying to adapt to the cleaner hard rock sound of the day. ...I believe they were embarrassed at the psychedelic extravagances of their youth. And those of our own age were basking in the mellow sounds of country rock and the tired noodlings of the Alman brothers and the Grateful Dead. Things were very depressing. This was the milieu that birthed Destroy All Monsters. We were designed to be a 'fuck you' to the prevailing popular culture."
Leaving Ann Arbor in 1976, Kelley headed for the West Coast to pursue his studies further at California Institute of the Arts (DAM colleague and lifelong friend Jim Shaw would soon follow). Attending Cal Arts in the late 1970s meant being in an institutional hotbed of contemporary art theory and practice, studying under such luminaries of Conceptual Art like John Baldesarri and Douglas Huebler. After graduation Kelley quickly established himself in the Los Angeles art scene, staging a variety of text-fueled performances works at various spaces around town, playing in a group with artist and fellow Cal Arts alumn Tony Oursler, and eventually meeting and collaborating with performance artist Paul McCarthy.
While the early 1980s were highly productive years for Kelley, he remained a "West Coast artist," gaining only limited attention elsewhere. Partly this could be credited to the NY-centric chauvinism of the American artworld of the time; but it can also be attributed to the ephemeral nature of Kelley's performance-based works and the way such works seldom meet with anything more than a select and temporary audience. For a while his main success in New York came by way of his cross-country association with members of the NYC art and music "underground" -- e.g., his collaborative friendship with the band Sonic Youth.
By 1986 Kelley shifted his focus into making more object-related works -- installations involving "sculptural" elements, graphics, and various wall pieces. It was the more physical, tangible pieces such as "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid" and "Pay for Your Pleasure" (1987 and 1988, respectively) that proved to be his "breakthrough" -- first landing him an attentive audience in Germany and other European locales, and finally bringing him to full attention of the East Coast art scene. The recognition landed him a slot in the 1992 Los Angeles MCA exhibition Helter Skelter, a survey that included Kelley's work alongside that of Raymond Pettibon, Robert Williams, Lari Pittman. Paul McCarthy, Jim Shaw, et al. By the end of the following year, a couple of monographs on Kelley's work appeared; and the artist found himself already being given a career retrospective by the Whitney.
Sorting through the artwork of Mike Kelley -- in whatever form it took -- is a difficult undertaking. Firstly this is because of Kelley's creative modus -- always oblique, steeped in deliberate ambiguity and discontinuity, thematic tropes put through their paces by way of lateral thinking and (as the artist himself put it) "games of deferral." The second reason for this is the nature of the discourse -- the limited and repetitive litany of fashionable art-crit concepts -- that coalesced around his work when he first rose to prominence in the early 1990s.
For instance: Looking over the titles of reviews and articles of Kelley's work that appeared during these years illustrates the narrowing set of critical concepts that critics reached for at the time. In 1988 one finds a critic at the Chicago Tribune speaking of "An Element of Truth in Our Kitsch Culture," with Peter Schjeldahl weighing in a few months later on an aesthetic of "The New Blue Collar." But within a couple more years, review titles suggest a set of themes beginning to ossify: "The Pathetic Aesthetic: Making Do with What Is" (Los Angeles Times), "Beyond Redemption" (Artforum), "Portraits of the Artist as a Young Loser" (Wall Street Journal), "The Apocalyptic Vulgarian" (Art & Auction), "Stupidity as Destiny: American Idiot Culture" (Flash Art), "Abject Lessons" (art + text), and "Obscene, Abject, Traumatic" (October).
Like a good many people, it was at this time that I was introduced to the work of Mike Kelley, most often via the second-hand circuit of how it was reproduced and discussed in art magazines, by which it point it was already being firmly and repeatedly framed in terms of abjection, failure, and "trash culture" and "slacker" aesthetics. Again and again the same terms, usually accompanied by the same few select works reprinted to illustrate the author's point. Small wonder that a few critics quickly were quick to react and dismiss Kelley's success, viewing the work as yet another trifling manifestation of Gen-X irony, falling on some hazy point of the cultural spectrum between the Coen Brothers' smug referentially and Quentin Tarantino or Beck's geeky, high-productivist po-mo pastiche.
The crux of all this can easily be pinned on the dolls -- the various second-hand knit and cloth animals and figures (and the afghan rugs, as well) that Kelley had collected from thrift stores and incorporated into his work in the late 1980s. For critics and viewers, these items carried loaded psycho-social (as well as –sexual) associations that pointed in the direction of the damaging experiences of childhood. But as the artist later explained, his use of these articles had been prompted by other considerations:
"...I've distanced myself from the neo-Pop Art currently in vogue. I see a lot of art now that mimics popular culture, the look of advertising or fashion photography, modernist design, and so on. It strikes me that much of this work is concerned with a mastery of those visual tropes, that there is some investment mass culture on the level of desire. I'm of another generation, I have a more critical relationship with mass culture. ...At this point, I see a lot of art that seems more than willing simply to ape the mass media. It's a non-critical reiteration of that desire-producing industry. It completely bores the shit out of me."
In the mid- to late 1980s, this act of distancing was directed at the pop-conceptualist trends of appropriation art and simulationism that were then very much in fashion with the NYC artworld. By Kelley's reckoning, these modes of art-making were still too enamored or problematically intertwined with the consumer culture that they purported to critique, and were therefore complicit in its reperpetuation. His decision to use dolls and rugs was an effort to sidestep this realm of commodified exchange value, drawing instead from the interpersonal economy of gift-giving.
Sure, these dolls, stuffed animals, and the like are the sorts of gifts are commonly outgrown and eventually are left behind or fall by the wayside, yet the ritual of gift-giving is in itself part of formative experiences that shape an individual's psyche, playing a role on the socialization process and thereby having effects that they will carry with them in different interpersonal relation throughout life. This "economy of emotion," as Kelley referred to it, translates into a different form of exchange value -- an exchange value just as often predicated on guilt, obligation and indedtedness, and emotional blackmail or manipulation as it is on love or affection. The slightly dirty and frayed nature of the knit dolls suggests elements of dysfunctionalism that may lie at the heart of familial relationships, with the re-presentation of these items being offered as fetishistic objects -- marginal material embodiments of emotional scarring and trauma. Be that as it may, the associative qualities of these items and materials were bound to cause semantic slippage or prompt more than a single reading.
Just as Mike Kelley's early work reacting against elements of formalism or conceptualism that had been in institutional vogue during years of his own art-school training, his output from the late '80s onward was frequently a response to the ideas that critics had previously attached to his work. But when a number of critics assumed that the work was rooted in Kelley's own personal experiences and that they chose to interpret it in terms of abuse and childhood trauma both baffled and annoyed him. Inasmuch as any of Kelley's later work hinged on themes of abuse and trauma, it was a generalized response to the critical readings that had been grafted onto prior pieces. "I decided that if they say my work is about abuse," he later stated in an interview, "Then I'm going to make my work about abuse -- everyone's abuse." With that, Kelley delved into researching the "culture of victimhood" -- especially the then-popular public mania that involved a swirl of lurid news stories about Repressed Memory Syndrome and satanic ritual abuse. 1
His other response was to return to writing, producing extensive texts that framed the thematic focus and intention of each new series of work. Making his purpose clearer, hoping to preemptively trump the role that critical interpretations played in "speaking for the artist."
|Above: Mobile Homestead (Detroit, 2010), Brown is the Color of |
My True Love's Soul (1992), Proposal for the Decoration of Conference
Rooms for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry (1991)
"In my estimation, architecture is one of the lowest art forms because it's so utterly bound to taste, functionality, and the necessity to represent -- in the most overt way -- the power of the organizations that pays for it. ...A tremendous amount of money is spent to produce pompous, generally aesthetically empty, structures. And what are these buildings? Often they're associated with those organizations that control and mold your life: churches, schools, government buildings, corporate offices. The decision by al-Qaeda terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center reveals the incredible symbolic meaning attached to these buildings.
Equal to, or surpassing, the symbolic power of official architecture is that of domestic space, which I also find to be reprehensible. I recall that when I read Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space I was shocked by his interpretations of the poetics of domestic space -- his reading of the secret cubbyholes of the home as positively intimate. How different this is to the contemporary trend to see all secret niches as symbolic of hidden trauma. It is beautifully written but, still, it seems like a sophisticated version of a Reader's Digest story. I grew up in an environment in which such literature -- the propagandistic stories of hearth and home found in Reader's Digest and the magazine geared toward geriatric readers at the doctor's office -- was omnipresent. Such stories revel is depictions of phony country domesticity that never was. And even stranger, it is a past that the reader could not have actually lived because it was before their time. It was a false nostalgia."
-- Mike Kelley, interview, 2009
In his 1996 book The Return of the Real, Hal Foster devotes a chapter to unpacking the 1980s art trends of appropriation art and simulationism, discussing the work of artists like Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach and Ashley Bickerton in the context how these trends epitomized an era-specific "cynical reason" and a "mortification of critique" in relation to the art market and the broader political economy. Turning his attention to the art of the early 1990s and writing in the immediate wake of Kelley's breakthrough, Foster posits the artist's work as both an example of "abject" and "Generation X" art. For the better part, Foster's reading doesn't much differ from the common account of the time, but in the course of his discussion he brings this musing to the table:
"Lumpen, the German word for 'rag' that gives us Lumpensammler (the ragpicker that so interested Baudelaire) and Lumpenproletariat (the mass too ragged to form a calls of its own that so fascinated Marx -- 'the scum, the leavings, the refuse of all classes') is a crucial word in the Kelley lexicon, which he develops as a third term, like the obscene, between the informe and the abject. In a sense he does what Bataille urges: he thinks materialism through 'psychological or social facts.' The result is an art of lumpen forms (dingy toy animals stitched together in ugly masses, dirty throw rugs laid over nasty shapes), lumpen subjects (pictures of dirt and trash), and lumpen personae (dysfunctional men that build weird devices ordered from obscure catalogues in basements and backyards). Most of these things resist formal shaping, let alone cultural sublimating or social redeeming. Insofar as it has a social referent then, the Lumpen of Kelley...resists molding, much less mobilizing. But does that indifference constitute a politics?"2
Whether or not it constitutes a politics of any sort (coherent, implicit, or otherwise) is a matter for another discussion. The peculiar thing for me -- looking back years later -- is that the work ever received the amount of attention that it did in the first place, that Kelley was so quickly catapulted into the contemporary canon of Significant Art. Aesthetically, it's a bit of an anomaly. In terms of both style and content, it doesn't align with the sleekly designed, po-mo work that flanks in on either side of the artworld continuum -- all of the stuff that Kelley said bored the shit out of him, from the work that rose to the fashionable fore in the mid to late 1980s, which returned in the mid-90s after a brief hiatus, and which has been the dominant style ever since. Perhaps it was all a matter of auspicious timing; with the art bubble of the 1980s having burst at the end of the 1980s, with critics and audiences turning their back on almost everything that had just transpired -- its inflated hype, the market-jockeying cynicism and the unprecedented piles of cash that greased the whole machine -- and instead (perhaps) looking for something that embodied a different sensibility. Something that in no way reflected the sensibility of the prior dubious decade; something that stylistically embodied its exact opposite.
In short, for me Mike Kelley's work -- as it was at a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- didn't resemble much of the American art of its day. And some of Foster's description of the lumpen aspects of his work point towards certain peculiar qualities that bring other comparisons to mind. It's these qualities that instead make me think of installation work by certain Russian "post-conceptual" of the same period -- particularly that of Vadim Zakharov, the husband-and-wife team of Ludmilla Skripkina and Oleg Petrenko, or the collaborative trio Medical Hermeneutics. The use of hand-crafted and slightly worn or ramshackle elements; the way that certain installations inhabit the exhibition space (whether filling it, or at other times sparsely underutilizing it); the use of text, graphics, banners, especially those that involve personal or subaltern sloganeering that apes the rhetoric (syntactical or visual) of the dominant society; and the way these elements often amounted to an eccentric iconography that pointed towards the mythic, the personal, or the pseudoscientific; thereby suggesting a profusion of marginalized counternarratives that run against the grain of the "official" culture and its normative miens.
Unsurprising that Kelley bristled against much of what had written about his art, that he chose to react against it throughout part of his career. I have difficulty remembering anything written about Kelley's work that didn't, at the time, strike me as woefully insufficient in many respects. Just as often, I found it to be genuinely awful on some level or another. Especially so for those discussions that hung their analysis on the thematic peg of "low" or "trash" (or, worse yet, "White Trash") culture, usually in reference to failure and elements of the pathetic. Yeahyeahyeah, the tiresome voice of the conflicted, schizoid subconscious of the American middle class; with its many lingering and unexamined puritanical impulses, not to mention the cycles of self-loathing and -castigation fueled by these same impulses. Chronically unreflexive and lacking self-awareness, the middle class continually displaces and projects -- inscribes, if you will -- many of its own neuroses, phobias, and fantasies onto the varied "others" who inhabit lower socio-economic orders. It's this insidious undertow that I've often sensed lurking at the heart of a lot of things that were written about Kelley's work; which is probably why it has invariably came across as being derogatory -- no matter how much the author might've thought or intended otherwise. In this sort of context, the issue of failure seems like such a double-edged topic in this context.3
When Mike Kelley decided to make a series of artworks about "everyone's abuse," he delved into researching the topic from various angles, part of which led him to concentrate of Repressed Memory Syndrome, which was something of a public mania at the time due to its connection with reputed (and eventually discredited) incidents of satanic ritual abuse. This same research also steered Kelley into the domain of ufology. This last aspect wasn't entirely new territory for the Kelley, who described the topic of UFOs as having been a "major cultural fixation" of his childhood. Add to this that Kelley had been 12 years old and living in the Detroit suburbs when a rash of UFO sightings occurred throughout southeast Michigan; sightings that made national newspapers and prompted then-Michigan senator Gerald Ford to call for a Congressional inquiry.
Kelley said he was intrigued with tracking the way ufology reports changed over the years -- beginning with the sharp increase of sightings during the depths of the Cold War in the 1950s and '60s up to more contemporary reports of close encounters and abductions, and how such stuff was reflected in popular science-fiction forms. Whereas once upon a time, he noted, aliens were sometimes portrayed as benevolent, in the post-Whitley Strieber era they were almost always portrayed as a menace -- particularly with the universal frequency with which probing factored into recent accounts. Inasmuch as these accounts played out as a low-level cultural obsession, Kelley regarded them as a convergence of "hi-tech fetishism and body loathing" in which extraterrestrials assume the role of "childlike abusers of adults." As such, he saw them as being part of a broader "culture of victimhood" – the pop-psychology trend that argued that the dynamics of a person's adult life were anchored in some form of childhood trauma.
"But [curator Emi] Fontana, who saw Kelley last week for dinner, said that Kelley's art-world accomplishments had a price, as he had been actively struggling with what it means to succeed in a world that has become more materialistic and foreign to him.
'He had a deep discomfort in seeing what the art world is now,' Fontana said. 'He didn't like the fact that everything has become so corporate. He said to me: If I were to start now, I would never become a visual artist.
'He really wanted to be an important artist, and he worked all of his life for that. He found himself at the top of his game and then found that the world he was at the top of was a world that he didn't like. That's intense existentially.'"
-- from the L.A. Times obit, 02/02/2012
II: John P
This work says as much about John's teacher as it does about John. The painting is obviously the by-product of a school holiday assignment. Assigning holiday subject matter in art classes is not suggested. A weak student, such as this, seeks to please his master by hiding behind a mask of compliance. The result is anti-art on the aesthetic level, and hypocrisy on the moral level. This student has an uncanny ability to produce stereotypical art geared towards such occasions as Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and so on. He produces an art that is of an exceptionally ugly, saccharine vulgarity. This weak child's facile performance bolsters his self-esteem, and could lead eventually to a career in an intensely socialized field such as commercial art, but at what cost? In producing work meant to please his teacher, this child has become emotionally and aesthetically stunted. A jack-o-lantern is three-year-old subject matter, and John should have moved beyond this kind of imagery long ago. There is a definite problem when older students continue to produce only bland and conventional art works. John's teacher's preference for stereotypical art could be a sign that he is warding off dangerous negative fantasies himself, a supposition supported by his preference for Halloween assignments, which focus on antisocial imagery and depictions of death. The obvious intent is to produce a flattened emotional climate in the class room. The purposeful arrangement of this kind of pseudo-art is a defensive maneuver on the part of the teacher, who does not have the strength to confront his student's mutilated and distorted personalities. This inability on the part of the teacher to respond to his student's distress results in the creation of a consciousness hostile to understanding. A lack of true response in interpersonal relationships creates a world view that is divested of meaning. This is experienced by the child as a 'nameless dread,' which explains the child's attraction to conventionalized images of horror, like ghosts. The clichéd expression of the terrible masks the true terror of actual interior emptiness.
-- extract from We Communicate Only Through Our
Shared Dismissal of the Prelinguistic (1995)
In the last dozen or so years of his life, Mike Kelley devoted most his time to concentrating on a single project -- an open-ended, multi-part and multi-media project titled Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction. Involving video productions, performance and "total" installation settings. Each production was drawn from an archive Kelley had been amassing over the years; a collection of photos taken mostly from high-school yearbooks, photos of random depictions of school plays and peripheral ceremonies -- amateur theatrical efforts and pageantry, rites of initiation, and what Kelley described as "the carnivalesque" – the sorts of activities that commonly take place in the context of high school, yet fall just on the periphery of its institutional program.From these varied and random photos he'd derive elaborate narratives for each production.
By dent of his own Catholic upbringing, Kelley was fascinated with ritual and its role in culture, and the EAPR served as a vehicle for dissecting the role of ritual in the processes of socialization in the years of pre-adulthood, exploring inclusive and exclusionary modes of behavior through which social groups and strata align. "One of the reasons I initially wanted to become an artist was to produce secular rituals," He once explained in an interview. "I've always thought of art as secular ritual, as material ritual. For me art sometimes functions as social critique or social analysis, but at other times I'm simply playing with the forms of ritual as pure form."
|The artist conducting field research (c. 1959), |
and Catholic Birdhouse (1978)
As for myself, I came to Mike Kelley's work a bit late. I remember when he had his big breakthrough in the early nineties, but at the time it failed to engage my interest for some of the reasons I've complained about above -- seeing the same handful of works reproduced time and again, each time discussed in the same dubious terms, I didn't see much there there. Any appreciation I developed for his art came slowly and sporadically. Partly this was prompted by subsequent exposure to much of his work that had received little critical attention, the sort of stuff that exhibited an underlying sense of darkly sardonic humor that appealed to me, that invoked a sense of recognition or kinship. There was also hearing the music of Destroy All Monsters after Kelley and Jim Shaw revived the original version of the outfit in the early nineties after their 18-year absence. And then there were also the interviews with him that I randomly encountered over the years, in which he said a lot of things I could identify with, and that helped give me a clearer sense of where he and his work were "coming from." On a certain level, there was something about the germinating ideas and the direction that Kelley took that I could identify with; and I eventually found that his was the sort of voice – in its specific critical stance toward the broader culture -- that I thought had been overwhelmingly absent from most institutionally-recognized art of the past few decades. That voice has now gone silent, by all accounts by way of deliberately silencing itself. In one or another, it was inevitable one way or another, since Kelley had claimed in a recent interview that he thinking about dropping out of the artworld, anyway -- that he might be planning to stop making art.
For some perverse, utterly random reason I find myself reaching for Antonin Artaud's frothing screed "Van Gogh, The Man Suicided by Society," which I probably last read when I was in my late teens some 25 years ago. It comes to mind only because of its feverish (and very French) romanticism, as Artaud expulsed about the relativity of madness in the face of a society syphilitic with its own advanced pathologies and "bourgeois inertia." The essay's romanticism is that of another era, one that's utterly alien and inaccessible to our own. It's the sort of thing that can (most likely) only be read these days through a thick lens of irony. But isn't irony the essence of our current age, particularly those of us (myself, and Kelley himself) whose date of birth landed them on this side of the "postmodern" divide?
And there's no shortage of irony in the topic at hand. Perhaps starting with: The irony of someone who was raised Catholic opting to snuff himself; or an artist who set out to be failure and thought his pursuits would guarantee him a desired marginal existence instead meeting with unexpected success. Or of creating work that spoke from the margins and was intended to be abject and irredeemable, and then -- eventually -- finding that the conditions of that same work's acceptance led to an irredeemable situation. Of being alienated from the reasons that one a particular pursuit in the first place, only to find that all the bullshit you'd tried to circumnavigate loomed out of the waters and swallowed you whole. "Something done in bad faith can be successful," perhaps; but the nature of that success might demand some kind of merciless toll in return. Better to go with the tide of cynical reason, some might conclude, but all the while enviably admiring the efforts of those who choose to swim against it.
1. Admittedly, Kelley's 1990 piece "Nostalgic Depiction of the Innocence of Childhood" -- with its explicit depiction of what amount to a form of plushie sex -- sealed the envelope on this fetishistic/psycho-sexual reading of this body of work.
2. A distinction to be made at this point: Foster's use of the abject in relation to Kelley privileges Bataille's original use of the term, which was social in its orientation. The use of the term in the artworld of the early-mid 1990s was derived from Julia Kristeva, whose concept of abjection were largely based in Lacanian psychoanalytic theories.
3. Mike Kelley had stated in interviews that he disliked the designative terms of "high" and "low" in this context, and that his use of certain objects and materials was because of what he considered their "generic" qualities.