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

Mike Kelley,  Empathy Displacement…#7, 1990, acrylic on panel, found doll, painted wood box (photo by author)

Mike Kelley, Empathy Displacement…#7, 1990, acrylic on panel, found doll, painted wood box (photo by author)

Wheeeeew kweeens…it’s been a Mike Kelley-heavy week here at Filthy Dreams, hasn’t it? Are you ready for one more round? Sure, you are. Who could ever tire of that insightful Detroit-native with a healthy love of filth, trash and kitsch! I know I couldn’t.

For those of you just joining in or who chose to completely ignore my two previous essays (I won’t hold it against you. I tend to overindulge my love for certain artists), I’m attempting to piece together a genealogy of Mike Kelley’s aesthetics as a way to better understand his complicated, multi-disciplinary work currently on view in his major retrospective at MoMA PS1.

While many critics have written about Kelley’s work in the past, as well as lauded his recent retrospective, I believe that Kelley’s work has not been given its due as a link to certain notable aesthetics from Arthur Rimbaud’s decadent love of decay to Tennessee Williams’ interest in memory to John Waters’ subversive employment of trash. While often referred to as merely another abject artist connected to his collaborator Paul McCarthy and Black Flag draftsman Raymond Pettibon, Kelley’s work deserves a wider scope of understanding since his art deals with issues that far surpass the critically oversimplified concerns of abjection.

In response to this dearth of criticism, all week I have terrorized this blog with essays (click for parts 1 and 2) comparing Kelley to key figures who create outside the realm of fine art (though their work could certainly be contextualized as art). As I’ve said in each essay, I am not suggesting these figures were direct inspirations for Kelley’s artwork even though many of them were friends, collaborators or appeared in a work or two. For me, these comparisons work to illuminate the historical legacy in which Kelley’s work should be considered, as well as uncover the complexity within Kelley’s oeuvre.

Now…on to the next one:

Mike Kelley Was Sonic Youth

Mike Kelley's cover for Sonic Youth's Dirty

Mike Kelley’s cover for Sonic Youth’s Dirty

More than any of my other comparisons, Sonic Youth and Mike Kelley are perhaps the most closely connected since they worked together on several projects ranging from Kelley’s cover for Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty, using Kelley’s series of photographs Ahh…Youth!, to Kelley’s New York performance of Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile with the band at Artists Space in 1986.

However more than just collaborators, I see a deep and important connection between Kelley’s art and Sonic Youth’s cacophonous dissonant brand of post-punk.

A member of the Detroit noise rock bank Destroy All Monsters, Kelley was certainly no stranger to post-punk noise and rebellion.

Placing himself within a dialogue of punk music and outlook in his essay “Cross Gender/Cross Genre,” Kelley explains, “I didn’t feel connected in any way to my family, to my country or to reality for that matter: the world seemed to me a media facade, and all history a fiction—a pack of lies. I was experiencing, I think, what has come to be known as the postmodern condition, a form of alienation quite different from postwar existentialism because it lacks any historical sense—there is no notion of a truth that has been lost. To borrow a phrase from Richard Hell, I was part of the ‘blank generation’” (102).

Not only inserting his generational place with punk and post-punk music, Kelley also asserted his experience watching Iggy Pop’s wildly nihilistic performance at a Stooges concert as one of his formative “aesthetic high points.” However more than Iggy Pop or Richard Hell’s “blank generation,” I associate Mike Kelley’s art with Sonic Youth’s beautiful dissonance. At once masterful and ear-bleedingly loud, Kelley’s art merges the grotesque with the gorgeous, the raucously adolescent with the delicately intellectual.

From the “Day Is Done” installation to his video collaborations with fellow loudmouth transgressive Paul McCarthy, cacophony reigns in much of Kelley’s art shown at MoMA PS1. Despite the wide range of stunning sounds, my favorite audio-terrorist artwork must be his nearly excruciating “Mechanical Toy Guts.”

Mike Kelley, Mechanical Toy Guts, 1991/2012 (Courtesy The Box, Los Angeles)

Mike Kelley, Mechanical Toy Guts, 1991/2012 (Courtesy The Box, Los Angeles)

One of the last works completed and exhibited by Kelley before his death, “Mechanical Toy Guts” features an installation of the disembodied sound parts contained within noise-making holiday and novelty toys. From cat and dog-sounds to cheerfully unsettling Christmas carols, “Mechanical Toy Guts” emits a horrifyingly subversive sound, terrorizing the institutional gallery space with trashy, disposable mass-produced cacophony. Amplifying and distorting the motor sounds from the moving toys, in addition to the toy’s odd spoken phrases and sounds, Kelley not only plays with the uncanny with these disemboweled toys but also creates a disturbing and demented soundtrack to his trash aesthetic.

Overstimulating the viewers, as well as the poor museum guards who looked dismayed by their lot having to stand next to the piece, “Mechanical Toy Guts” produces noises that are at once unbearable and yet, strangely musical. Like Sonic Youth’s guitar feedback, the viewer has an almost visceral response to the collection of sounds emanating from the toys.

Not only is Mike Kelley’s use of noise similar to Sonic Youth’s dissonant audio-assault, Kelley’s investigations into teenage wastelands also connect with Sonic Youth’s adolescent outrage. If rock n’ roll is anything, it is adolescent, which brings me to Kelley’s “The Poltergeist.”

Mike Kelley, photograph from The Poltergeist, 1979 (with David Askevold)

Mike Kelley, photograph from The Poltergeist, 1979 (with David Askevold) (via

Collaborating with his CalArts teacher David Askevold on a series of seven photo-based works, Kelley delved into the abject nature of the poltergeist with photographs of himself with white, cum-like fluid flowing from his nose and mouth. Linking the poltergeist with adolescents, who often attract sightings and experiences of the poltergeist, Kelley plays with the idea of the corrupt adolescent body with its nocturnal emissions and newly-formed erotic impulses.

The connection becomes clearer in one of Kelley’s text panels, which states, “The Poltergeist is a force and not a being, like a ghost; but sometimes It has been seen to take form—an allegory made concrete—a monkey-like Phantom, small like a child but always in heat, not innocent at all…this is “The Spirit of Adolescence”: little enough to fit in your pants, but not staying contained—always making itself obvious, popping out, slinging shit, breaking dishes, staining the carpet. This phantom looks like a cat when young—messy but lovable—but develops into a red hot “Weirdo” of the kind once favored by adoescents, where every feature is tumescent: bulging eyes, lolling tongue, thousands of erect lumps all over the face—the embodiment of frustration—riding hot rods all over the house—no longer lovable—too obtuse to be tolerable—everything destroyed—sex energy released: A Monkey-Like Phantom—A “Rat Fink”—A Poltergeist” (255).

Mike Kelley, image from The Poltergeist, 1979

Mike Kelley, image from The Poltergeist, 1979 (via East of Borneo)

In this passage, Kelley compares the poltergeist to trashy Californian low art cartoonist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth‘s iconic sleazy character of the “Rat Fink,” who is also linked to post-punk music through his hilariously disgusting cover of The Birthday Party album Junkyard and lead singer Nick Cave’s predilection for Roth’s T-shirts throughout the early 1980s.

And yet, to bring the conversation back to Sonic Youth (even though I could talk about Cave all day but that’s a subject of another post), doesn’t Kelley’s “The Poltergeist” just seem like all they need is a listen or two to Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot” from Daydream Nation and maybe a Kleenex?

Mike Kelley Was Me (And Maybe You Too!)

Installation view of Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Installation view of Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.

Now before you get all up in arms and yell, “Emily, you egotistical slut.” Just hear me out.

Walking through MoMA PS1’s retrospective, I feel interpellated by Mike Kelley’s art more than with almost any other artist. Like Althusser‘s cop yelling “Hey you!,” I answer the call shouted by Kelley’s knitted afghans, grimy thrift store dolls, awful macrame, post-punk noise influences and his Detroit upbringing, which mirror my own experiences as a Pittsburgh girl raised among steel mills, polluted rivers and a hard-working blue-collar aesthetic.

Kelley’s particular brand of kitsch connects with those of us lucky (?) enough to come from similar backgrounds. As Kelley explains in his essay on the uncanny, we cannot escape kitsch, no matter how much we’d like to.

Describing artists’ use of kitsch, he states, “They know all too well that the lowest and most despicable cultural products can control you, despite what you think of them. You are them whether you like it or not.” (93).

And Kelley is right. Glancing at Kelley’s art whether the stuffed animals either I or my friends had as children in “Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites” or mom’s tacky jewelry embedded in “Memory Ware,” I view Kelley’s art through the realization that “I am that” and I like it. This call to fellow denizens of trash not only interpellates me but other blue-collar town descendents like me.

Mike Kelley, Memory Ware (Photo by Mama)

Mike Kelley, Memory Ware (Photo by Mama)

For example, visiting MoMA PS1 with my parents over the Thanksgiving holiday, my dad, not exactly your everyday art viewer, became excited at Kelley’s photographs of a steel plant in Detroit in Kelley’s “Black Out” installation and my mom kept talking about some hideous ostrich puppet embedded in “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid.”

By using low-cultural thrift store, mass-produced trash, Kelley not only subverts the higher institutions through a perversion of high art ideals, but he also, perhaps unbeknownst to him, creates a community of viewers who relate intimately to these materials and his subversive manipulation of them. While certainly not a romanticized view of community with viewers realizing the inherent worth of these objects, considering their worth to Kelly as an artist (and frankly to me as a critic) is that they are worthless, Kelley’s material connection with a certain segment of viewers gives these blue-collar babies a different insight into his work.

And at the end of it, perhaps that is why most critics and art historians have misunderstood Kelley’s art. Maybe they aren’t from these backgrounds or at least have repressed their memories of their blue-collar, lower class roots so far that they can’t access the subversive power of disposable trash aesthetics. I can’t imagine analyzing Kelley’s art without an engrained understanding of the perverse pleasure of these dingy dolls and thrift store nightmares.

In conclusion (yas kweens, we’ve finally reached the conclusion of this monumental endeavor), Kelley’s dangerous blue-collar aesthetic while alienating and subverting the upper class institutions and art historical places of power, conversely also gathers together a group of renegade lovers of filth. Much like John Waters’ fans and Filthy Dreams’ tag line, Kelley’s viewers are “minorities who don’t even fit within their own minorities” and who intimately know the power of trash.

One thought on “Who Was Mike Kelley?: A Genealogy Of Dangerous Blue-Collar Trash Aesthetics (The Finale)

  1. Emily, we know the power of trash or ” Detritus “as we refer to it, when in the company of our upper-middle-class elite friends.
    Go to Jesse N Ricardo’s Facebook and read Karen Renée Merkel’s critique on our installation at Cummings Gallery.

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