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
In Kelley’s superlative radio art piece The Peristaltic Airwaves (1986) and his legendary collaboration with Sonic Youth Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile (1985) – both of which received significant underground exposure in the form of a cassettes distributed by High Performance and Tellus – the once and future noise musician attained a certain apotheosis of literary ambition, grafting his deep but cartoonish familiarity with an array of modernist philosophical touchstones (from Freud to Beckett to Greenberg) onto an attention-deficit kaleidoscope of DIY populism: sex, scatology, & slapstick -- rock & roll of course -- and an eviscerating beam of sarcasm directed at Church, State, and Kelley’s betters in the Art World.
Tellingly, all of these elements can be seen in play in The Banana Man (1983), Kelley’s first completed video project. Created during his fledgling (and only) out-of-town teaching gig in wintery Minneapolis, Minnesota, The Banana Man belies and redeems its amateurish production values through the potency of its verbiage. Kelley’s facility with the cut-and-paste approach to symbolic, narrative, and philosophical structures providing plausible intentionality for the rough edits, bad acting, and 60-cycle hum.
It is also among the most Irish of Kelley’s performative outings, with Beckett-like fugues -- “Can there be growth without movement? And a stagnant pond fills with growth; fills with growth that wouldn’t be there if there were movement. I’m not moving, but I’m growing. And the growth will grow until the pond is filled and doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the loss of self” – followed immediately by a sequence in which the blind washerwoman of Justice miscarries a litter of potatoes into “the stagnant pond of life!” Begorra.
Unraveling and enumerating the specific formal and conceptual synchronicities between Mike Kelley’s The Banana Man and his lifelong Magnum Opus is more in the domain and scale of the academic dissertation than the catalog essay – but these deliberate consonances can nevertheless be experienced in the shapes, colors, words, compositions, stories, and bodily insult/celebration present in Banana and all of Kelley’s art.
And this holographic “as above, so below” cosmology holds true for each artifact in Kelley’s oeuvre, opening a loophole in the need for the permanent Mike Kelley museum. A master of semiotic legerdemain, Kelley’s multivalent symbolic manipulations opened not only to the public vocabularies of high art and pop culture, but to multiple simultaneous points of reference in his own hermetic system of meaning.
A work like Primal Architecture (1995), while touching on such apparently divergent references as Bauhaus geometry and color theory and the repressed-memory mashed potato sculptures of Roy Neary (the protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind), it also brings to mind earlier and later occurrences of lingam and yoni forms, underling interconnecting skeletal grid structures, and the appropriation of craft technologies – the potter’s wheel in this case.
Another case in point is the artist’s Performance Related Objects (1998), which, in spite of Performance Art’s emphasis on ephemerality, remain behind as relics, imbued with an almost spiritual dimension. Each of these quirky accoutrements – DIY drums, digeridoos, and public address systems, or a model of a spiral-shaped fort -- operate as narrative nodes with tendrils reaching back to their original function as interactive props in a specific story. But as relics, their strongest conceptual connotation is the absence of the activating artist’s body, prefiguring Kelley’s subsequent obsession with the idea of the Uncanny.
But his innovations were even more radical than I first suspected. Initially it seemed that Kelley’s Gesamtkustwerk only had a slight chance of being comprehended fully if all its components were impossibly assembled in one place over time, for repeated full-body readings. But as I began to scrutinize the individual “chapters” and recognize their capacity to activate an intricate matrix of morphological and conceptual resonance points across space and time, I realized that Kelley had forged an epic whose grand sweep could be fathomed in the humblest of its constituent parts, wherever two or three pieces were gathered in his name. Long live the New Flesh!
Images: Banana Man Costume, 1981; Peristaltic Airwaves 1986; Primal Architecture 1995; Performance Related Objects 1998. Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts