Cutting Class

John Haber
in New York City

Mike Kelley

All right, I confess. Mike Kelley has me on this one: high school was tough.

There was acne. Parents. (Remind me which was worse.) Not exactly sex, but you know. Grades. Oh, and did I mention vampires? Mike Kelley and Michael Smith's A Voyage of Growth and Self-Discovery (SculptureCenter, 2009)

To be honest, I borrowed the last from Kelley, who somehow seems hardly to have experienced the rest at all. Rather, his art goes in one fell swoop from a childhood of comic strips and stuffed animals to an adulthood of shame and betrayal, although without leaving the first of the two behind. He made a name for himself with an all-over canvas of stuffed animals squashed against one another and the wall. And his whole retrospective could be the comic-strip version of a real and serious life, one that ended in suicide at age fifty-seven, in 2012. Yet it all plays out in school, the former P.S. 1 in Long Island City, and it is like he never left. Childish, self-obsessed, and often just plain silly, it also manages to be larger than life.

Taking over the school

Kelley had no intention of graduating, at least in his imagination. A huge table at MoMA PS1 holds models of every school he attended, all in white. They look like a single futuristic building—or an ideal city out of Le Corbusier now shorn of hope. Another work supplies their floor plans, along with other random thoughts, in something between a maze, office or library cubicles, and a dead end. Kelley's largest installation, Day Is Done, unfolds in an actual Fresno school, complete with sunny vistas and dark nights, adults and kids on their way to class, choir boys, white-faced dancing girls, angels, and oh those vampires. He based it (and much else as well) on actual high-school yearbooks.

Make that his largest installation to date. Now Kelley has the entirety of the museum, and it could pass for a single performance. At the very least, it is an obsession run wild. The retrospective runs to thirty-nine set pieces, well over two hundred objects, and pretty much all media. Even Day Is Done has grown, with a full wing of one floor to spell out its motifs, plus a continuous showing in the courtyard's white bubble. Kelley might have appreciated an inflatable buckyball primed for a summer carnival.

Does he belong here? Leave aside whether this student will ever fit in. One can still cringe at the fate of P.S. 1 in the hands of MoMA. The city's finest alternative space has become part of a museum empire, where guards remind one not to touch. For the duration of this exhibition, it even drops "pay what you will" (except on Mondays). It also displays an artist rarely short of the attention he so craved.

When Day Is Done took over the whole of Gagosian in Chelsea, in 2004, it came in a mad rush of hyperactive art. At least critic dubbed the trend toward hysteria the New Cacophony. Five years later Kelley was back, both at Gagosian and at SculptureCenter, with a work based on Burning Man. (Pardon me if I neither repeat nor incorporate my earlier review of the latter.) And even the desert festival was not crazed enough for Kelley. Like another artist from Michigan, Jim Shaw, he wanted it to embody every good, evil, and sheer adolescent impulse from Woodstock to Altamont and back.

I found both works simplistic and infuriating. They could stand for an entire art scene eager to capitalize on big money, big openings, big spaces, big installations, and a male obsession with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Kelley's men differ only in just learning to shave. Yet things have grown in scale, even for him, and somehow it is the scale he deserves. One can share his own rush as he riffs on the same theme year after year—or, just as arbitrarily, drops it for something else. Besides, he gets to take over a former grade school, along with the vampires.

The results are not exactly reassuring, but so be it. One feels trapped in an already claustrophobic imagination. In fact, the closest one gets to peace and quiet is an invitation to crawl into a black tunnel. One finds oneself on one's knees, with a pulsing Modernism as the musical soundtrack. One has barely room for one's head, no light in the distance, and nothing to do but turn back. See what happens when you cut class?

The shame of it

The retrospective does not run chronologically. How could it, with an artist who refused to grow up? Upstairs, one can catch some of his earliest and mutest work, a series of birdhouses and wood pyramids open at the end. The first could be the only home he remembers. The second could be megaphones or dunce caps, for a man who loved both to make noise and to bear the punishment. Downstairs, the two-level space recreates a work from 1987 consisting of a few cartoon characters, the familiar logo of a fist raised in "solidarity," and, down the hall, red tape leading to an improvised battering ram and a locked shut door.

It already raises his central collision between the claustrophobia of his mind and the demand for freedom. It also stands as his sole show of concern for others. Still, Kelley was a born collaborator. He made that last work at Gagosian with Mike Smith, and his many other cohorts in rebellion included Sonic Youth, Paul McCarthy, and Tony Oursler. One can see his self-indulgence and mythologizing in McCarthy's desperate need to displease. One can also see their consequences in Oursler's motif of a gigantic eye.

Kelley's private myth starts with a hallway of felt banners. A swastika with the shape of testicles at each of its four points continues the conflict between repression and rebellion. Mostly, though, this rebellion unfolds at school, with Kelley the eternal bad boy at the back of the class. "Let's talk about rebellion," he scrawls. "If you don't want to know the definition, don't open the dictionary." Naturally the latter inscription hangs next to a painting of a student's cheat sheet, Cliff Notes.

Should I have said a cheat sheet before the Internet? Born in 1954, Kelley grew up with some of the liveliest cartoon rebels, before action figures took over the comics and the movies. Speaking of failures, he also grew up in Detroit, before moving to LA in the 1970s. There he could settle into childhood while leaving politics behind. He adopted the flippancy of John Baldessari and Cal Arts, but with none of their casual equanimity. He did not take to their conceptual art either, for his thoughts had too great a visceral impact.

He attended Wayne High School, aware that he was never going to be John Wayne. Another work, the only one clearly set in Detroit, pits a giant statue of John Glenn against photographs of the decaying city. Not that he lacked for heroes, in a series devoted to "philosophers, novelists, victims, and murderers"—including, not surprisingly, the Marquis de Sade. Superman makes an appearance, too, but to recite The Bell Jar, by another suicide, Sylvia Plath. I thought of the death that ends a novel by another hero, Franz Kafka: "it was as if the shame of it must outlive him."

The very marks of rebellion hint not at confidence and comfort, but revulsion, much as for Mark Leckey. More squashed stuffed animals hang suspended, with geometric sculpture on surrounding walls, like a rebuke at once to Modernism and to himself. "Don't be a panty-waist," he reminds himself, but agree to be "the butt" of everyone's jokes. On film, in the stark black and white of an old horror movie, a roommate berates him for a good half hour for his filthy habits. ("You have spoiled our love nest.") He set an early performance in a kind of psychologist's playroom.

Irony and repression

Everything he touches seems unstructured, and indeed a 1980 performance amounted to a game of word association. And The Bell Jar connects by association to a whole wing of glass jars as primitive science experiments, in honor of Superman's home planet, Krypton. They bubble on film with mysterious liquids, colors, and electricity—and more outside emit squeals of pain and laughter. Ann Goldstein of the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, the curator with Connie Butler of the Hammer Museum and PS1's Peter Eleey, gives this work place of honor on the first floor. Its more than ten years of accumulation gets the show off to a wild start. Again claustrophobia vies with excess, and neither one for Kelley has ever looked stranger.

Repression also determines what he leaves out. I said that he skips sex, but it percolates beneath that relationship with his roommate. It also enters as paintings of cheap jewelry, as "Mr. and Mrs. Hermaphrodite," and in comic-book covers in the style of R. Crumb. Here, too, the artist effectively leaps over adolescence, from the utterly infantile to adult perversity. Elsewhere he invokes "recovered memory syndrome," perhaps itself a fiction. He leaves open who is inflicting the abuse on whom.

Free association, repression, perversity, and shame—psychoanalysts should feel right at home. Still, the emphasis on high school pushes back at Sigmund Freud (although Kelley prefers to cite Bruno Bettelheim, the interpreter of fairy tales), by locating the roots of neurosis past early childhood. Like the constant barrage of pop culture, it also locates private madness in public territory. You, too, would feel this way, it says, if you watched the right movies and hung around with the wrong crowd. Besides, other artists, including Marina Abramovic, have masturbated in performance, so why go through that teenage ritual again?

Still, I could never recognize anything of my own school years or my own darkness. Look back to the show's real centerpiece, Day Is Done. It received raves on its New York debut, as if it held out the soothing murmur of the Peter, Paul, and Mary tune. And, to Kelley's credit, no one before managed a genuinely site-specific response to Gagosian's warehouse-like Chelsea space. His wares, however, amount to phony emotions, starting with his source material in vampire films, and you get to decide whether America has never outgrown high school or rather Kelley himself. In turning to school yearbooks, he takes a student's boast of uncertain achievement and gives it absurd proportions.

One catches video after video of dancers, singers, actors, and orators, after snaking to one's peril around Kelley's stage sets, mechanically driven animals, and other distractions. As he intensifies the silliness, he also darkens it, just as he had satirized the creature comforts of American childhood before. He edges the costume drama toward Halloween and Satanism. If that sounds forced, it is, and it fits with the work's theme—the confluence of art and adolescent vulnerability. Does the artist replay another tired version of Goth culture and the Young British Artists, the idiocy of LA art, or no meaning at all? Oh, hey, sure, and he is fine with that, but I only wish that it did not seem a prelude to the sale of t-shirts on the way out.

Kelley's very glibness can make him immune to reproach, but he warrants far more skepticism than he receives. Work like this puts the hype in hyperactive. He and Smith called their vision of Burning Man A Voyage of Growth and Self-Discovery, but what did they discover beyond a trendy irony? When he calls his high-school floor plans A Continuous Screening of Bob Clark's Film Porky's (1981), the Soundtrack of Which Has Been Replaced with Morton Subotnick's Electronic Composition The Wild Bull (1968), he might as well be showing off his (and, by implication, your) credentials. I can only plead in his defense for how the scale of his retrospective unleashes his wildness. And probably no artist has worried more about being on a leash.

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Mike Kelley ran at MoMA PS1 through February 2, 2014.


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