For the uninitiated, the Mike Kelley retrospective is a lot to digest. The exhibition, which spans three decades of work and fills the entire PS1 museum, showcases a dense array of video, installation, sculpture, drawing, photography, and painting. Through an enormous array of materials and installations, Kelley’s visual language explores a variety of emotions, concerns, themes, and aesthetic styles, but it is nevertheless Kelley’s voice throughout.
Kelley was born in a suburb of Detroit to a working class family in 1954. A rebel throughout his life, Kelley pursued an anti-establishment attitude throughout his youth and adulthood. His college band at the University of Michigan inspired in him a performative interest, while the California Institute of the Arts, where he earned his MFA, aligned him with the conceptual school of thought that was being defined by John Baldessari and Laurie Anderson. Kelley evinced an open attitude to the possibilities of materials and forms, engaging the potentials of craft materials and children’s toys.
The multifarious nature of Kelley’s working style is exemplified throughout the retrospective, which moves the viewer spatially and conceptually through a timeline of the artist’s work. Moving from the top of the museum to the basement, the viewer experiences a progression from early to later work, forming a cohesive understanding of Kelley’s efforts. Although his work may seem obscure at first, his themes and ideas slowly blend together, forming a tactile visual field of his concerns: society and class, behavior and emotion, childhood and adulthood, voyeurism and privacy.
A large collection of drawings on notepad paper explores his many plans and ideas about life and art: human movements are diagrammed; depression is explored with doodles and language; and plans for performances and costumes are plotted. A wry sense of humor is at play here, providing an intimate look into the sardonic, emotional, off-kilter personality of the artist.
On a large pedestal, a color-coordinated collection of objects found at the bottom of the Detroit river showcases issues of pollution and class: entire china dinner sets are on display, hardly damaged except for some small chinks. Each found item is arranged by color and size, forming a vibrant tableaux of other peoples' trash. A larger-than-life figurative sculpture, composed of found dinnerware shards, stands defiantly above the porcelain arrangement, like the ruler of this under-the-sea world of riches.
A darkened room with an large, structured lump is revealed to be a sort of visitor crawlspace. With the aid of a gallery employee and a flashlight, guests are invited to crawl into a completely dark passageway, with absolutely no illumination once inside (iPhone flashlights are not permitted) until the viewer finally finds a small lit hole, through which can be seen a small video of a man performing sexual acts.
But these pieces are only a tiny taste of the enormous exhibition, which changes radically with every room and every floor. The turn of a corner could send you into a completely different state of mind and visual delights, with large-scale Krypton globes based on Superman's home planet, or hanging amalgamations of abandoned stuffed animals, or video installations accompanied by theatre settings and performance props. And there are many lengthy videos throughout the museum. One could spend an entire day at PS1, meandering through the many corners of Kelley’s active imagination.
The impact of the show becomes much more emotionally weighty after Kelley’s suicide in 2012, at the age of 57. But the retrospective at PS1 is testament to his on-going vitality, and incredible, although shortened, career. It is a great homage to the artist and his life.