Laughing, Gasping with Deference: Mike Kelley

01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

Photos by Paul D’agostino

It’s a circus, a carnival, a house of horrors. A hall of direly deformative mirrors, an exoplanet of myth, a frighteningly aggrandized treehouse. It’s also fun and funny, insightful and sincere, humble and woefully intimate. This show—indeed, this show of shows—is Mike Kelley (through February 2), a retrospective exhibition fittingly situated all around the grounds and in almost every niche of the former school that is MoMA PS1.

Evidently the most extensive exhibition of Mike Kelley’s work to date, the spread here—stretching from a grand structure in the courtyard featuring ongoing screenings of the feature-length version of Day is Done, to virtually every room of every floor of the main building, including video pieces tucked into its oxidized mechanical guts in the basement—leaves no period of the artist’s output unexplored, no medium of the many he worked in unrepresented. You will find his humorously tweaked, pristinely polished, seemingly interactive, spatially reciprocal and acoustico-sculptural takes on the Superman narrative in the Kandor works of rather recent derivation (1999-2011); remnants and relics from performances he did in the 70s; his well-known Banana Man (1983) and Half a Man (1995); and even a series of drawings he made as an undergrad in the mid-70s, then reworked into their final forms in the mid-90s. The chronologies overlap aplenty, but this tends to function to the show’s advantage.

By and large, Kelley’s work is both best understood and best displayed in daunting abundance, in non-linear modalities, and as retrospective. The PS1 show hits all such notes. All the repression and oppression, all the terror and buffoonery, all the spirituality and depravity, all the mirth and squalor, all the sex and hysteria, all the squeamish pallor: it all rides a circuit of temporal and conceptual—and in fact stylistic, also—consistency. Hardly touching upon notions of futures better or bleaker—save for in one lone work whose inscribed reference thereto in a sunny setting is undermined by its left register, and by everything else in the room—Kelley’s works are mired, indeed drowned in somber pasts envisioned via his own memories of childhood and adolescence, or via the familial folly of others, or via pitfallen forms of popular culture, all of which is exquisitely conveyed in the collective shriek and haw of the massive Day is Done installation on the second floor. In his minings of the Superman myth, then, Kelley is less concerned with the icon’s sci-fi inflected heroism than with his innate kernel of vulnerability and weakness.

Regarding another icon of sorts to whom he pays much homage in his works, Sylvia Plath, Kelly’s interest is less in her mental frailty than in her sardonic existential temperance, her keenness of conviction and fiery courage. To be sure, his curious readings and recastings of Plath are rather absurdly and poetically vocalized in the Beckettian Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene), a catalytic film work that gave way to more than 30 others, culminating in the aforementioned Day is Done series, which would have numbered 365 if brought to full fruition. Concerning notions of completion and incompletion in Kelley’s life and work, this seminal film features a note of polyvalent ominousness: “You already were dead, until you found yourself.” (Disclaimer: my sister was Kelley’s studio assistant for several years and worked on many of his projects; she has an acting role in EAPR #1.)

You might laugh, cry, shudder and gasp aghast as you make your way around this exhibition, yet the feeling likely to register most deeply is that Kelley was a formidably inspired artist whose personal problems and manias, as long as he was able to exploit or waylay them, could neither contain nor effectively quell his explosive imagination. Where Kelley quotes Goethe in the Pay for Your Pleasure room, we find words that, with regard to the artist’s life and work, ring with resounding, thundering truth: “Imagination lies in wait as the most powerful enemy. Naturally raw, and enamoured of absurdity, it breaks out against all civilizing restraints like a savage who takes delight in grimacing idols.”

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