Mike Kelley

by Jonathan Griffin

Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills

Kandor 18 B (2010), photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

‘Portrait of the Artist as Superhero’

In 2000, Mike Kelley made a film titled Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (Domestic Scene). It was the first of a series of works that reanimated photographs of carnivalesque performances he found in high school yearbooks such as plays or fancy dress days; he saw them, he said, as ‘rituals of deviance’.[i] Some were simply photographs; others comprised installations, video performances and original music. In 2005, he presented the series in his acclaimed exhibition ‘Day is Done’ at Gagosian Gallery in New York. (Matthew Higgs breathlessly suggested at the time that it was ‘the best show ever’.[ii])

Also around the turn of the century, Kelley became fascinated by the depiction of the city of Kandor in the Superman comics, subsequently explaining that it was not the mythos itself that interested him but the ubiquity of Superman as a contemporary folk figure.[iii] For a museum exhibition in Bonn in 1999 he proposed to recreate the superhero’s birthplace (in the story, miniaturized and preserved in a bottle of atmosphere) with the assistance of Superman fans from around the world; when this was not possible for practical and economic reasons, he gathered images from the comics themselves, only to notice the remarkable inconsistency of the conceptions of the city. The Bonn exhibition assumed a subtext of institutional critique, aligning the impossibility of the recreation of Kandor with the restrictions of the public museum. He then embarked on a series of opulent sculptures of cast resin models of Kandor in specially blown, huge glass bell jars; many of these were shown at Jablonka Galerie, Cologne in 2007, and at Punta Della Dogana, Venice, in 2009.

So his latest exhibition at Gagosian Beverly Hills, which convened around two Kandor works twinned with two EAPR installations, was by no means a bolt from the blue; instead it represented the latest developments of ongoing series from an artist who at the age of 56 is arguably at the peak of his powers. It also comes at a moment in Kelley’s career in which he has increasingly distanced himself from the abject, hand-made and craft-based aesthetic that once (long ago) defined his work, and has moved toward the production of highly finished and expensively made objects.

Kelley has become adept at building immersive, entertaining environments of sound, movement and light that seem tailored to the attention span of a hyperactive child just as they are to an adult; in ‘Kandor 10 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34, Kandor 12 / Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #35’ (to give it its full, quadruple-barreled title) there was never a dull moment. The exhibition was split, principally, between two large spaces; the first was a riot of colour – with a candy coloured stage set, hanging fabric and piles of cushions, throws and rugs. The second gallery was more solemn, lit mainly by a green resin screen. The entire exhibition was self-illuminating, so art works sprang dramatically out of the darkness, or receded into the gloom.

Kandor 10 A (2010), photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

Light and shadow, therefore, became an abiding theme of the show. The first gallery contained Kandor 10A (all works 2010), a grotto-cum-cave with a glowing bottled city within. Kelley has made reference to the allegory of Plato’s cave in the past; here the shadow of the bottle (and its accompanying tank of atmosphere) was thrown onto a panel at the back of the cave, alluding both to the process of reverse translation from a tiny comic book drawing to a life-sized sculpture, and to the imaginative license that Kelley, like Plato’s prisoners, brings to what is, ultimately, only a comic-book sketch of a fantasy character’s memory. In the Bible, light is often connected to truth; for lapsed-Catholic Kelley, reality and fiction (and, by extension, memory and imagination) are equally true.

Kandor 10A’s counterpart in this installation was EAPR #34, subtitled The King and Us/The Queens and Me. From a black and white photograph of a young man in a vaguely Byzantine cloak posing with eight women, Kelley has extrapolated two videos featuring similarly costumed actors engaged in enthusiastic Bacchanalian rumpus. Underscoring the confluence between the two series, they were intercut with images of Kandor enveloped in swirling atmosphere. In one video, the ‘king’ is attended to by his harem of female servants, who fight like animals over a bone that he tosses contemptuously to the floor. In The Queens and Me, however, it is the man who cowers from the feral women when they turn on him and poke him with sticks. It’s hard to be certain, but one of the female servants might actually be a man, or a eunuch.

Even though the actors are adults, the narrative is the stuff of confused adolescent fantasy. Kelley gives the impression that, like the skeptical patient who teases the analyst with lurid (and invented) confessions, he is playing up to clichéd expectations of repressed libidinal desire. In the gallery, Freud himself stood nearby, albeit miniaturized as a mass-produced action figure in a vitrine; a life-sized (and lifelike) figure of Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, stood above him, pulling a dustsheet over the plinth.

There is no easy equivalence to be inferred between the psychoanalyst and the fast food figurehead, but Kelley is dealing throughout the show – explicitly and implicitly – with readings of desire, and with the representation of memory and history. Perhaps, in this inversion of high and low cultural values, the mythologized Colonel has more insight into our unsophisticated desires than does the mythologized Freud. Kelley’s glowing Kandors, of which there were many versions in this exhibition, are luxury, large-scale tchotchkes, some including actual mantelpiece ornaments to reiterate their kitsch visual appeal.

Kandor 12 A (Green Screen) (2010), photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

The second space was dominated by Kandor 12 A, a bottled Kandor sitting on an orange pediment in front of a green resin screen, and EAPR #35, subtitled Dour Gnomes. As with the previous EAPR installation, the originary photograph was reproduced as a lenticular lightbox which, depending on where one stood, melted into Kelley’s photographed restaging. (The most interesting thing about this trick is that it never wholly works; ghostly remnants of one image always invade the other, creating an unstable fusion of the two.) In the original Dour Gnomes photograph, the figures, more hooded Pierrots than gnomes, don’t even look particularly dour. Kelley recasts them as depressive, hunchbacked and ambivalently gendered figures who shuffle aimlessly around what looks like a cellar (the subterranean making an important symbolic appearance).

Dour Gnomes must, in this context, be taken as a counterpoint to The King and Us/The Queens and Me. While the action of the latter is fueled by appetites for sex, food and riches, the chubby gnomes seem to suffer from the loss of such appetites, or, perhaps, indigestion from overindulgence. Near the installation is a sculpture titled Mexican Blind Cave Worm, a huge stuffed creature that writhes bloatedly around stacked crates of Corona beer. It is made from the same fabric as the gnomes’ outfits, and sucks at each end on beer bottles. The golden liquid achieves a subtle visual rhyme with the coloured glass of the Kandors elsewhere in the exhibition.

To what extent is it reasonable to extrapolate from Kelley’s twin narratives an inwardly directed critique of the circumstances of their production, presentation and consumption? Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part. Nevertheless, the supposedly neutral white cube of the gallery is, in the case of Gagosian Beverly Hills, so loaded with expectation and association as to be almost impossible to ignore. If I were an artist, I’d consider it bad for my art, even if it were good for business.

The more sympathetic way to understand Kelley’s embrace of formal gorgeousness and material extravagance is as a deliberate surrender to the id. While the activities of the EAPR performances might be a little trite for authentic, id-driven fantasies, the artist’s willingness to give the market what it desires has the ring of truth about it. Behind one of the walls Kelley had placed a vacuum cleaner. It is a perfect symbol for the artist’s super-ego, hidden away for the moment but ready to be plugged in again in the future.

[i] Mike Kelley in John Welchmann, Mike Kelley: Day is Done, 2007, Gagosian Gallery, p. 461

[ii] Higg’s enthusiasm for the exhibition derived from the extent of its ‘formal and its emotional complexity’: ‘the term Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t quite do justice to the vast territory the show both explores and explodes’. ‘Looking Forward / Looking Back’, Frieze, issue 96, January – February 2006

[iii] Mike Kelley in Rafael Jablonka ed., Mike Kelley: Kandors, 2011, Hirmer Verlag, München

First published: Text zur Kunst, No. 82, Summer 2011