Not everyone wants to travel back into their childhood. For some of us it’s not picket fences and ice cream trucks, and even for those of us with ostensibly idyllic upbringings, revisiting our formative years where we pushed peas around our plates and slung heavy backpacks over our shoulders, isn’t a walk down memory lane we’d willingly take.
But Mike Kelley doesn’t care.
The Detroit-raised artist is going to make you confront your convictions, your ideologies, your morals, and your own relationship to your past, and he’s going to do it by making you take a trip through his head. Sound enticing? Just think of it as free therapy.*
Mike Kelley, currently on display at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, offers a portal into the artist’s prolific–and at times misunderstood–world by bringing together over 250 of his works completed between 1974 and early 2012.
The exhibit has traveled from Amsterdam to Paris, and from Paris to New York, finally landing in Los Angeles, the city in which Kelley taught, worked, and called home for nearly 40 years. Championed by MOCA’s newest director, Philippe Vergne, Mike Kelley is the first installation of his tenure. It’s a risky decision, though a calculated one for sure: you may not walk away from Mike Kelley liking the artist, but you certainly will remember him. (And that’s good for MOCA, a museum that has experienced its fair share of woes the last two years.)
Upon departure you’ll feel like you just took a strange, David Lynch-like stroll through someone else’s brain. But don’t call the work surrealist or avant-garde. It’s a genre all its own. Of Kelley’s work and the public’s reception, Vergne has said, “I think people need to understand that the LA art scene wouldn’t be what it is without the presence of Mike Kelley as an artist and as a teacher.”
This show is Kelley’s homecoming. And it is grand, in both scale and what it seeks to accomplish.
First, the span of the collection itself is remarkable; it is the largest ever display of Kelley’s work and includes paintings, photos, sculptures, video installation, and the repurposing of every day and found objects. The tone inside the museum is even more impressive. The exhibit manages to create order and chaos simultaneously, displaying the minefield of themes prevalent in Kelley’s work, as diverse and divisive as “American class relations, to sexuality, repressed memory, systems of religion and transcendence, and post-punk politics,” without making you run for the door– though the inclination is there.
Framing the exhibit is Mobile Homestead, Kelley’s full-sized replica of his Detroit childhood home, which was posthumously completed after the artist committed suicide in early 2012 at the age of 57. The installation sits outside the front doors of the museum as an innocuous, though misleading, precursor of what’s to come. The white and blue barn-style windows and its bland, bucolic facade belie the mindf**k that lies within.
Because if you thought Mike Kelley was mostly grimy, stitched-together stuffed animals, the infantilismo that has become the artist’s public calling card, think again.
Perhaps this is why Kelley is considered one of the most influential and prolific artists of the 21st century. Good art should make you think, surely, but great art should send a shiver down your spine while you’re ruminating.
The retrospective displays Kelley’s uncanny ability to make you question everything by making you profoundly uncomfortable, and to be at once trustworthy—in part because he allows his whole self to be on display. Just search out The Banana Man, 1983, the artist’s only true solo video project. “The Banana Man,” Kelley said of the project, “was a minor figure on a children’s television show I watched in my youth. I, myself, never saw this performer. Everything I know about him was told to me by my friends.” It is Kelley’s fiction of a fictional character, but it feels quite real.
Another example is his 1995 piece, Educational Complex, a large, white rendering of every school he attended and the house he grew up in, with blanks and gaps left for the spaces he didn’t remember. However, when the artist checked his models against the real versions he found that not one of his recreations were accurate.
Kelley is always questioning the reliability and reality of memory, especially his own, but in doing so, by challenging how we see the past, he also questions convention.
Pay for Your Pleasure, 1988 is a cornerstone of the exhibit. Forty-two large colorful banners of the most important writers, poets, and philosophers, line both sides of a wall, and are all connected to a quote linking art to crime/evil. For example, above a portrait of Plato reads “Great evil springs out of fullness of nature…weak natures are scarcely capable of very great good or evil.” Above a portrait of French playwright and poet Antoine Artaud reads “… Everything bad that happens happens because of a conscious, intelligent concerted ill-will.”
At the end of the Pay for Your Pleasure hall hangs a piece of artwork from a convicted felon in Los Angeles. Kelley specifically requested this final touch; all of the ceiling-high portraits telescope to this one, small, framed painting as you leave the installation.
At the beginning of the installation there is a donation box—placed ever-so-slightly off the side—the proceeds of which benefit a charity that deals with victims of violence.
Pay for Your Pleasure is subversive and Kelley doesn’t allow you the courtesy to ignore his work. It’s loud and often in your face, but he also doesn’t do you the disservice of spelling it out for you. Which means, if you blink, or if you choose to not pay attention, (i.e. walk past the donation box without acknowledging its relevancy to the installation), it’s possible that your memory of the piece becomes something that wasn’t intended at all. The theme hits again and again, harder each time. Kelley’s work is iterative at times, though the goal is at times. It is demanding at others, and will leave you wondering how the devil you made it through your own childhood and into adulthood in one piece.
It’s not possible to “go home again,” even if you recreate that home piece by piece. What is home anyway? What is memory?
Even Homestead has a dichotomous nature. Currently, if you donate school supplies you receive a free 2-for-1 admission to the museum. Prior to his death Kelley concluded that the basement of the permanent structure in Detroit should be used for “private rites of an aesthetic nature.” It makes you think, and then it makes you shudder.
Even more so, the exhibit is overwhelming; a full-body experience that is emotionally demanding, funneled through the main room of the retrospective which features an array of video content from Day Is Done (2005–06), Kelley’s 25 video installations based on found photographs of extracurricular school activities. The competing sounds are disorienting and the content itself—vampires as school administrators, children dressed as angels singing in a Christmas play, a young boy at a barber shop—makes for a frenzied but curated carnival of video that’s both immersive and repellent. Day Is Done challenges what “art” is and, beyond the challenge, requires you to pay attention. It is channel-surfing gone wrong, but you can’t look away, and even if you do, it’s impossible to block out the sound. Day Is Done creates a fractured white noise audible from almost every other room of the exhibit—a heartbeat that follows you everywhere, even when you finally leave.
When you do eventually emerge from the dark of the museum out into the light of 1st street, something will feel different. How honest you are about that something is up to you.
Mike Kelley at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA is on display now through July 28th.
*The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA is free Thursdays between the hours of 5pm-8pm. Make a night of it and hit up Downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District.