Mike Kelley is regarded as one of the most influential and perplexing artists of our time. The work he produced between the mid-70s until his death helped shape the face of contemporary art. His retrospective on view at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA has been traveling since 2012, but the experience here is unique. Every review you read will point out how the massive installations and audio works overload the senses. The show is literally screaming.
“It was already a large show, roughly 250 works of art spanning Kelley’s entire career. You can learn a lot about contemporary art, and Mike Kelley of course, within the past forty years. Mike was that kind of artist,” shares MOCA curator, Bennett Simpson. “He was one of the most thoughtful and analytical artists about his own work. His work can’t really be explained.”
Cartoons, toys, and school, especially highschool, are all themes in Kelley’s work. It spans from canvas to the screen with his experimental short films, to the stage with bands Destroy All Monsters and Sonic Youth. One can go on forever about his craft, paintings, and the deliberate intensity of colors such as yellow, symbolizing domestic bliss and sunshine. Even the chipped pottery in his memorial which stands next to his paintings of chipped objects represents memories. Kelley’s memory was selective. His sculpture of astronaut John Glenn is an exact replica of one at his highschool, represented nearby as cardboard models built from memory. A graduate of CalArts, Kelley was a trained artist who understood how to use art. He believed in its power socially and that his audience was an open minded one.
“I think Kelley’s depths hold social contradiction,” Simpson says. “These depths are vessels for his humor. This is where analysis happens.” Even back in 1982, Kelley was putting his audience in an ambiguous place. For example, Kelley’s piece “Shock” (1982), part of his “Monkey Island” performance installation, is made up of a sexually charged adolescent cosmology of insects and monkeys. The components that comprise the installation are hung salon-style in their own room. Jars are present throughout the exhibition both physically, as ‘cages’ or carriers for scientific objects, and figuratively, as in Superman’s video recital of “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. This motif continues in “Kandors” (2007-11), colorful lit models of Superman’s home planet, Kandor, which was miniaturized and kept in a jar as depicted in the comics. Within the mythology, there are references to domesticity and the history of contemporary sculpture.
Was the real Kelley playing with his audience or was he slowly unraveling emotionally? Those who scrutinize Kelley’s work should consider his amazing ability to tell stories. In order to push the concept of boundaries, one must first have a sense of those boundaries. Anybody can look at his stuffed animal works and say, “Yeah, I have those!”, but what Kelley did with these objects is something only he could do. Simpson adds, “Somebody once asked Kelley if explaining his work would take away from it, and he said, ‘At least they won’t take away the wrong things.’ There are layers in his work, a lot of allegory that is not clear- and that’s ok.”
Mike Kelley is on view at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through July 28, 2014.