Who Was Mike Kelley?: A Genealogy Of Dangerous Blue-Collar Trash Aesthetics (Part 1)

Mike Kelley. Mike Kelley as the Banana Man. 1981. (c) Estate of Mike Kelley.  All rights reserved.  Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Photo: Jim McHugh.

Mike Kelley. Mike Kelley as the Banana Man. 1981. (c) Estate of Mike Kelley. All rights reserved. Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Photo: Jim McHugh.

“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.”–Andy Warhol

From his early witty birdhouse sculptures to his use of dirty stuffed animals and bargain bin remnants to his enormous installations such as “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #2-32 (Day Is Done)” and “Kandors,” Mike Kelley’s overwhelming and engrossing retrospective currently at MoMA PS1 asserts the importance of Kelley’s transgressive and brave aesthetic. Unfortunately expanded in response to his suicide last year, Kelley’s retrospective has been viewed through the lens of his tragic death, celebrated by critics who most likely, would not have accepted a museum full of his trashy art if he were still alive.

For Kelley was a dangerous artist. Forcing the hierarchical art world to admit a blue-collar boy from Detroit, Kelley did the impossible and for those of us who came from similar ratty Rust Belt towns, we understand what this means. Unlike Warhol who turned his blue-collar roots into formalism, Kelley left Detroit still spewing the language of kitsch, ragged toys and polluted steel town rivers.

Mike Kelley, Ahh...Youth!, 1991 (photo by author)

Mike Kelley, Ahh…Youth!, 1991 (photo by author)

While I have already published a review of MoMA PS1’s fantastic retrospective elsewhere, my recent second viewing of the all-encompassing exhibition drove me to consider Kelley’s accomplishments, his overarching themes and the understanding of his work in conversation with other artists. Showing the various incarnations of Kelley’s career from video art to his noise band Destroy All Monsters and his performance art, the PS1 retrospective highlights Kelley’s chosen obsessions–the uncanny, memory, kitsch and an unwavering ability to venture into the darkness of the American psyche.

Making seemingly random associations with Kelley’s work, I want to probably too boldly create a haphazard genealogy of Kelley’s artistic output, which I see as standing outside the normal narrative of art history. For me, Kelley’s artwork appears closer to the aesthetics of writers, playwrights, filmmakers and musicians than his fellow artist colleagues despite his associations with the “Helter Skelter” Los Angeles artists such as his frequent collaboration and brother in filth Paul McCarthy and prolific post-punk draftsman Raymond Pettibon.

While I’m highlighting a few figures who seem to fit into a fairly queer genealogy, I am certainly not claiming these figures were direct influences on Kelley’s art even though a few were his friends, fans, collaborators or made an appearance in his artwork. Reaching outside of the normative art historical progression and understanding of Kelley’s work, I want to place the significance of his art in a new and perhaps more fruitful conversation.

Considering we  here at Filthy Dreams know that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I’m breaking my lengthy thoughts on Mike Kelley into two parts [Note: Now it’s three parts]. Just like a three day bender! So buckle up, pour yourself a midday martini and let’s delve into Mike Kelley’s oeuvre.

Mike Kelley Was Arthur Rimbaud

Mike Kelley's Rimbaud from Pay For Your Pleasure, 1988 (photo by mom)

Mike Kelley’s Rimbaud from Pay For Your Pleasure, 1988 (photo by Mom, yes that’s right, Mom)

“I do not understand laws. I have no moral sense. I am a brute.”–Arthur Rimbaud

Quoted on a beautiful monochrome painting of the young decadent poet in Mike Kelley’s evocative installation “Pay For Your Pleasure,” Arthur Rimbaud’s connection between immorality and his poetry joins a painted selection of other poets, writers, philosophers and other public figures with, as Kelley, describes “a quotation from that persona linking art production and criminal activity in some way.”

Originally installed in Chicago’s Renaissance Society, Kelley’s “Pay For Your Pleasure” delves into the connection between art and criminality, a favorite topic for late 19th century decadents such as Rimbaud. Walking down the hallway of poetic criminals, the viewer eventually comes to an artwork created by a notorious criminal from wherever the installation is held. For its inaugural installation in Chicago, Kelley placed a painting by infamous serial killer/clown John Wayne Gacy. But before you venture into art criminal paradise (wouldn’t Genet just love this?), Kelley places a donation box, collecting money for a victims’ organization since, as Kelley asserts, “no pleasure is for free, a little ‘guilt money’ is in order…” (18).

Installation of Mike Kelley's Pay For Your Pleasure at MoMA PS1 (photo by author)

Installation of Mike Kelley’s Pay For Your Pleasure at MoMA PS1 (photo by author)

Walking through the installation at MoMA PS1 full of images of my personal role models such as Oscar Wilde and Bataille, Rimbaud’s portrait made me stop and consider Kelley’s work in conversation with these decadent writers.

In Rimbaud’s short life and poetic career, he mined everyday life for its abject, scatological truths, inspiring later grungily honest writers and musicians such as Patti Smith and Richard Hell. Like many of the decadent writers, as well as Kelley in “Pay For Your Pleasure,” Rimbaud linked his creative output to criminality, highlighting the dangers of representing the often silent impulses and memories lying dormant within our collective subconsciousness.

In Illuminations, Rimbaud writes, “True alchemy lies in this formula: ‘Your memory and your senses are but the nourishment of your creative impulse’.”

Tying the brutish abject with the idea of memory, Kelley’s use of uncanny objects such as castaway stuffed animals and thrown-away thrift store relics further links Kelley’s creative output to Rimbaud. Rather than using everyday language to portray the decadent decay of the abject, Kelley employs the language of disheveled blue-collar childhood detritus.

Mike Kelley, Eviscerated Corpse, 1989 (courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago).

Mike Kelley, Eviscerated Corpse, 1989 (courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago).

For example, Kelley’s stuffed animal sculptures “Eviscerated Corpse” reveals a hanging doll with her “innards” lying on the floor that are made up of stuffed animal snakes and bananas. These stuffed animals are so familiar to some viewers (aka me) that you can almost here the crunch of the beans contained within these dolls.

An uncomfortable, uncanny vision of an oddly violent scene of doll evisceration constructed with dirty stuffed animals, Kelley toys with our ability to empathize with these dolls, playing our childhood memories.

In his essay “Playing With Dead Things: On The Uncanny,” Kelley states, “The uncanny is apprehended as a physical sensation, like the one I have always associated with an ‘art’ experience—especially when we interact with an object or a film. This sensation is tied to the act of remembering. I can still recall, as everyone can, certain strong, uncanny, aesthetic experiences I had as a child. Such past feelings (which recur even now in my recollection of them) seem to have been provoked by disturbing, unrecallable memories. They were provoked by a confrontation between ‘me’ and an ‘it’ that was highly charged, so much so that ‘me’ and ‘it’ become confused. The uncanny is a somewhat muted sense of horror: horror tinged with confusion” (73).

Looking at “Eviscerated Corpse” in the context of Kelley’s interest in the uncanny, it becomes clear that this same feeling of horror is Kelley’s desired intent on the audience. Not only is Kelley’s use of stuffed animals uncanny, but their worn, filthy surfaces highlight the doll’s decay into abjection, troubling the viewer and their ability to project their own emotions onto the doll.

As Kelley explains, “In these works, I toyed with the viewer’s inclination to project into the figures, to construct an inner narrative around them, which I would argue makes viewers less aware of their own physical presence. To counter this tendency, I used extremely worn and soiled craft materials in the construction of these works. The immediate tendency of viewers to be sucked into a narrativizing situation was dismantled when they got close enough to the sculptures to recognize the unpleasant tactile qualities of the craft materials. Fear of soiling themselves countered the urge to idealize” (53).

Using the visual language of childhood to disturb and horrify the viewer with the uncanny, posing the abject against the idealized, almost saintly images of our childhood dolls we hold in our memory, Kelley evokes Rimbaud’s celebration of destruction, weakness and decay. As Rimbaud states, “Genius is the recovery of childhood at will.”

Mike Kelley Was Tennessee Williams

Installation view of "Day Is Done" at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Installation view of Mike Kelley’s “Day Is Done” at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

As we have noted again and again, we are rabid fans and supporters of Tennessee Williams, loving his evocation of memory, loneliness and failure. Glancing at the grand themes in Williams’ work, Kelley also mined these utterly human emotions, spaces and experiences, particularly mirroring Williams’ interest in portraying memory.

Beginning with Williams’ iconic and seminal play The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ entire career could be summed up as an attempt to harness the power of memory in his plays. The Glass Menagerie, in particular, shows Williams’ goal of representing memory by being set entirely within the memory of the main character (and TW stand-in) Tom.

As the narrator observes in The Glass Menagerie, “The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”

Like Williams’ attempts to represent memory on stage, Kelley similarly attempted to construct installations created entirely through memory. While The Glass Menagerie is often referred to as a memory play, Kelley’s installations could perhaps be termed repressed memory art, revealing Kelley’s predominant interest in Repressed Memory Syndrome.

Discussing his project Missing Time from the mid-1970s, Kelley states, “The project grew out of my interest in a debate raging in the United States over the issue of Repressed Memory Syndrome, which, simply stated, is the notion that memories of traumatic experiences can be completely and unconsciously blocked out and made inaccessible to the conscious mind. In recent years, a large therapeutic industry has emerged working on the assumption that childhood sexual abuse is the cause of this syndrome. Such therapists also believe that repressed memories can be recalled through therapy and remembering them can help to cure patients of a verity of symptoms, the most serious of which is multiple personality disorder” (61).

Installation view of Mike Kelley's "Educational Complex" at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Installation view of Mike Kelley’s “Educational Complex” at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

While certain critics and viewers have made the mistake of connecting Kelley’s artistic output to child abuse due to his interest in repressed memories, his works such “Educational Complex,” in which he reconstructed every school he ever attended entirely through memory, leaving spaces where he could not remember as sites of potential abuse, mines a different sort of abuse–institutional abuse. As Kelley notes, “this repression proves my training must have been traumatic–it must have been a form of abuse” (62).

Perhaps his work most closely connected to Tennessee Williams’ memory plays and his own interest in repressive memory syndrome is his massive installation “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #2-32 (Day Is Done).” Conceived by Kelley as a “fractured…musical,” “Day Is Done” centers around a series of videos Kelley made based on a collection of found photographs from school yearbooks (283). With oddball scenes ranging from a goth in a Dracula outfit, girls in face paint chanting down school halls and a nativity play, the “Day Is Done” installation poses these reconstructed videos with the original yearbook photographs, as well as the sets in which these scenes were played out.

First shown at the Gagosian Gallery, “Day Is Done” is an immense, immersive experience into institutional memory, a nonsensical trip into a student subconscious where feverish schoolyard memories are enacted on sound stages.

Installation view of Mike Kelley's "Day Is Done" at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Installation view of Mike Kelley’s “Day Is Done” at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

While certainly more cacophonous than The Glass Menagerie, Kelley’s “Day Is Done” contains the same unconventional and unreliable narrators as Tom in Williams’ play. Are these videotaped memories really what happened in these photographs? Or are they false memories created due to Repressive Memory Syndrome? We, like Kelley and Williams, may never know the true reality behind these and our memories.

Is that enough for now? Are you screaming in exhausted horror for me to stop? Well, that’s all for today, Mary. Stay tuned for the second installment of my Kelley fanaticism…

4 thoughts on “Who Was Mike Kelley?: A Genealogy Of Dangerous Blue-Collar Trash Aesthetics (Part 1)

  1. It is interesting to consider the use of class in conversation with the Decadent poets of the 19th to mid 20th century (before Genet). The Decadent poets usually came from upper-class backgrounds and they wrote about high themes which they then perverted. What Mike Kelley does is bring all of that down to blue-collar, disposable pop culture trash. Very intriguing!

    • It’s true and there’s a lot to talk about with class and Mike Kelley’s work especially since he perverts the high-class gallery and museum institutional space with these nasty disposable objects. I think a lot of other people have missed the point of Kelley’s use of trash-he’s not trying to prop it up as a potential medium for high art, he’s dragging down the institutions with it, which is why John Waters is first on my list for the next section. I think there’s so much that could be said about Kelley’s work that really hasn’t been investigated for some reason.

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