I haven’t written anything about Mike Kelley since he killed himself just over three years ago, but it isn’t for the reasons you might think. Like most of his friends and acquaintances in Los Angeles, I have decidedly mixed feelings about his career-topping final exit, and sorting those out is an enormous, ongoing, and private undertaking. No, the primary impediment to my weighing in on Mike’s legacy is the fact that his oeuvre – now being complete – is, frankly, mentally and physically overwhelming. For a depressed guy, he sure did a lot of work!
This was literally brought home to me recently when Kelley’s Stedelijk Museum retrospective finally made it back to roost at MOCA’s cavernous Geffen Contemporary facility. But wandering from room to overstuffed room, I experienced an unexpected and paradoxical reaction. I kept feeling there was not enough. That the exhibit was incomplete. Which is crazy – I had already spent 10 hours in the former LAPD garage, and felt I had barely scratched the surface. They couldn’t include every single scrap left behind by the hardest working man in art business, could they?
Could they? It occurred to me that that was exactly what I wanted to see, physically, in one place at one time – Mike Kelley’s complete works, with no missing parts. Not only that, but I wanted it to be a permanent installation, available for repeat in-depth visits over a number of years. It’s not something I could say about many artists (certainly not Clifford Still, who managed to arrange something pretty close) and I realize that such a model is completely unfeasible in the context of contemporary culture, but… there it is.
In a day or two, I realized that my desire was bound up with an understanding of Mike’s art as One Great Work, like some great novel. Very much like some great novel -- characters, plots, motifs, satirical targets, formal devices, and linguistic tour-de-forces recur with rhythmical regularity and subtle (or drastic) variation in Kelley’s work.
Albeit in an immersive, multi-sensory, modular, non-linear structure. With Gravity’s Rainbow or Finnegans Wake I felt that I didn’t quite glean every last drop of meaning and pleasure from the first go-round. Same here. It had to sink in. And I would need to revisit it in a year -- and again in five years, and in twenty, fifty, whatever. Forever. Not gonna happen.
And yet there is an argument to be made for the holographic view – or at least that Kelley’s most deliberately written works contain the template for his larger corpus; the cornerstone of Mike Kelley’s success as an artist has always been his literary virtuosity. Contrary to common wisdom regarding text-heavy pictures, Mike’s dense early black-and-white paintings and drawings actually attract and hold the viewer’s attention. And his early performance art works stood out from the herd of endurance tests and neo-ritualistic costume dramas by the sheer strength and wit of their writing.
Read more in the catalogue for the IMMA exhibit Primal Architecture or ATJ