For our Best of 2013 series, Fan Mail columnist A. Will Brown selected Alex Bigman‘s review of Mike Kelley’s retrospective at PS1. Says Brown, “The untimely death of Mike Kelley is a potent reminder of how important every minute can be, particularly for those exploring and challenging the very mesh of society. This article, while particularly well written, hints at the importance of displaying Kelley’s oeuvre, yet also addresses the complex problems in showing a body of work that was cut short due to the artist’s death, as a career retrospective. Perhaps it was too soon for a show like this, not just because the painful memory is fresh but because Kelley, like all artists, deserves more time and consideration before being staged so distinctly.” This article was originally published on November 27, 2013.
Mike Kelley, now at MoMA PS1, is massive. The largest retrospective of the artist’s work to date, it is comprehensive perhaps to a fault, filling each of the exhibition space’s four floors to capacity and arguably beyond. The former school building’s multiple stairwells allow for various paths through the exhibition—a feature that is liberating if potentially disorienting—but the overall impression is one of totality; of a lifetime of practice gathered together and laid out for inspection. Even after several hours navigating the show with the aid of a floor plan, I’m not confident I saw everything, but in any case, I had had enough.
This is to say that the show is taxing, partly because Kelley’s art is itself often stress-inducing, concerned as it is with giving stage to images of trauma and giving form to anxieties that society would otherwise repress—and doing it with a fierce impudence and black humor that has been aptly classified as punk. To be sure, this disdain for the polished and the decorous is what makes Kelley so outstanding as an artist, and Mike Kelley deserves praise for including so many of his hard-to-stage projects. Take, for instance, his quixotically ambitious Day Is Done video installation series, which sets out to stage twisted “repressed memories” purportedly lurking beneath 365 high-school yearbook photos of extracurricular activities. Here we encounter twenty-five of the thirty-two completed installments together in one rich, cacophonous gallery.
Where the exhibition comes up regrettably short, however, is in opportunities to actually reflect on the career, tragically ended by Kelley’s suicide last year, that is so thoroughly on display. To what do Kelley’s lacerating meditations amount? For someone not already long acquainted with the artist’s practice, this retrospective, profuse as it is with examples, provides precious few opportunities to formulate a response.
The ground level contains Kelley’s canonized Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, a room-filling installation of soiled stuffed animals suspended from the ceiling in celestial agglomerations, surrounded by brightly colored, wall-mounted canisters that periodically release a deodorizing spray. The themes of sterility and decay at work pervade Kelley’s oeuvre, but the form here is uncharacteristically innocuous. Similarly unrepresentative, and occupying most of the first floor’s large remainder, are Kelley’s Kandor series, begun in 1999: large sculptures of Superman’s shrunken home planet, which, the story goes, the superhero keeps in a glass jar hooked up to atmosphere stabilizers. Conceptually evocative of environmental cataclysm or bodies on life support, while frequently phallic or otherwise genital, Kelley’s Kandors palpably materialize a tangle of anxieties, perhaps latent in the comics, that recur throughout the artist’s practice. The sculptures’ alluringly slick, candy-coated surfaces are a far cry from the aesthetic of scrappy appropriation and lo-fi video that largely characterized Kelley’s pre-Gagosian years.
Upstairs, one encounters a number of similarly vast and impressive projects. Notables include Pay for Your Pleasure, a corridor lined with portraits of famous intellectuals, each paired with a quote relating art and criminality, that begins with a donation box for the victims of violent crime and culminates with an artwork by an imprisoned local murderer; Black Out, a sprawling collection of works reflecting on the artist’s hometown of Detroit, completed in honor of the city’s 300th anniversary; and Day Is Done. This is not to mention a great many small galleries, the display strategies within which appear comparatively strained, if not outright baffling. In several places, thematically dissimilar works, sometimes separated in time by over a decade, appear side by side. Certain curatorial gestures feel obvious; there is a nice pairing of Lumpenprole and Agitprop, which humorously literalizes the proverbial “shapes beneath the carpet,” with Horizontal Tracking Shots of a Cross Section of Trauma Rooms, a faux-modernist sculpture that does a similarly bad job of hiding its demons: traumatic YouTube videos which erupt from its reverse side. Others seem downright arbitrary.
What results is an exhibition guided neither by chronology nor by overarching thematics, but by what the curators describe as an attempt to “underscore the recursive nature of Kelley’s work”—which is to say his return, again and again, to certain preoccupations throughout his tragically truncated career. Organized as it is in this purportedly bottom-up fashion, Mike Kelley in a way becomes the postmodern one-man show par excellence, more devoted to exhibiting the idiosyncrasies of the artist’s practice than to positioning Kelley in any historical or wider artistic context. (The organizers do make passing mention of Kelley’s supposed exploration of “post-punk politics”— a term they would do well to define.) In consequence, while many of the works in this show manage to startle and disturb, the insistent recursiveness regrettably benumbs more than it provokes. Perhaps it is still too soon.
Mike Kelley runs through February 2, 2014, at MoMA PS1.