Saturday, November 30, 2013

Joker’s Last Laugh (revised)
On Mike Kelley Retrospective at MoMA/PS1

“I felt I was forced to go to the biographical at the point when I became disgusted with the general ahistoricity of the art world.” Thus Mike Kelley explained the increasing attention he paid to aspects of his traumatized past in an interview with Isabelle Graw. Biography was an increasingly important aspect of Mike Kelley’s work; but perhaps he just went too far in that direction when last year he took his life by smothering himself after dragging a gas barbecue grill into his bathroom.

Now, his retrospective at MoMA/PS1 is considered by some as yet another testimony to his stooge status. Although one might think of PS1’s background as a school as a site-specific twist to Kelley’s obsessions with the sexual undertones of childhood and repressive process of socialization. Above all, the show reveals how little we knew about Kelley’s hysteric diversity and heterogeneity, surpassed only by the like of Bruce Nauman – another artist who was a product of California’s hotbed of the late 20th Century.

Kelley belongs to a generation of artists who entered the American art scene via Los Angeles. Overshadowed by the New York mainstream, he was flourished on the margin and aimed at integrating the condition of marginality to his entire oeuvre. Mostly known for his stuffed animals pieces in which he “scattered” the plush stuffed toys on, around, or uncannily under a blanket, Kelley’s scatological side was largely overlooked in the art history surveys of 1990s.

Nostalgic Depiction of Innocence of Childhood (1990) is a manifest of abjection par excellence. Julia Kristeva defined abjection as all those essential parts of our body or its discharges (e.g. vomit, feces, etc.) that cause repulsion and are thus abhorred . Smeared with chocolate or feces, we see the naked artist and his co-performer, busy in an orgy with their fleecy toy bears and rabbits.  

In Kandors,  which are miniature cities isolated under large brightly-lit jars which are connected to cylinders, Kelley's weird inner child can be seen transformed into a geeky teenage obsessed with his hero, Superman. A clear sense of malice, ablazed with creepy bright pseudo-psychedelic colors, is  present. The cities are deserted dystopias preserved at their last throes. As if in a coma, these cities showcase another pointed yet not confrontational critique of myth-making industry of the west-coast.

The conceptual framework within which the late artist worked was as expansive as the tools and media he chose to communicate in. As I was walking in and out of PS1’s rooms, I could see that Kelley’s incisive humor and frantic energy pervade his entire oeuvre. The viewers and critics that criticized his art as ‘passive nihilism’ and ‘love of failure’ found new reasons for their claims, when the news about his tragic death sent shockwaves to the art world. But Kelly's sinister laughter, no matter how nervous and tense, was a clear message from an individual who was at pain to shake his fears of a deeply traumatizing world.  

1 comment:

  1. This review sheds new light upon Kelley’s heterogeneous and scatological side of his work which I loved instead of feeling aversion to. Although I had little doubt when I was watching his doll having a bowel movement for a few minutes. Nonetheless, an entire exhibition showed more than enough to convince who Mike Kelley truly was as an artist with his keen and quaint sense of humor and clean all his discreditable titles off. People often get confused whether Kelley is a good artist or a bad artist. I believe he is neither or just a malicious joker.