‘Screw you, Mike!’ shouted artist Jutta Koether, as she sat down on the stage in the Stedelijk Museum. She slammed two enormous silver screws on the table, explaining that after meeting Mike Kelley, a tireless ‘collector’, she began to accumulate screws. She went on to state that speaking at a symposium positioned to discuss the artist’s ‘retrospective’ – and thus immediately to historicize Kelley’s work – felt wrong. To Koether, Kelley ‘performed like no one else’, so how could she go into the galleries and see only ‘dead objects’?
I empathize with Koether: writing a review of what was to be a mid-career survey show – but which suddenly became a retrospective following Kelley’s suicide in January 2012 – feels a premature task. Attempting to consider what even a fraction of the 200+ works on display reveals about his (now) entire body of work is fraught with pathos. The show was originally intended as a thematic exhibition in collaboration with curator Eva Meyer-Hermann, but, following the artist’s death, Stedelijk Director Ann Goldstein opted for a loosely chronological hang. Seeing so much of Kelley’s work together is overwhelming. Rather than assembling a clear overview, it reinforces the complex and cyclical nature of his work: ideas, materials or symbols re-appear or repeat – both in art and life – only to be ripped apart and reformed in order conceptually and psychologically to progress.
The exhibition begins in the basement of the recently opened extension of the museum – a fitting setting, given Kelley’s obsession with the ‘sublevel’, or underbelly of the institution, an interest made manifest in his iconic Educational Complex (1995) – an architectural model formed from memory of every institution he attended, with ‘blank spaces’ filling the parts he could not recall. The work marked the beginning of his address of institutional abuse, ‘repressed memory syndrome’, and a negation of Modernism – ideas also present in From My Institution to Yours (1987) and Day is Done (2005). During the symposium, UCLA-based art historian George Baker pointed out that underneath the model lay a small mattress, supposedly for the visitor to lie on and view the underside.
What lies beneath, physically and psychologically – forgotten, hidden, unconscious or repressed – was a recurring theme for Kelley. An early work, Antique (Prematurely Aged) (1987) – a dresser made from cheap veneer, with photos of the artist placed on the top – has a mirror below reflecting two books stuck to the underside: Sex and Girls and How to Make Love to a Man. But the hidden is not always revealed. Lumpenprole (1991) made me laugh out loud. Ridiculous in form – a large Afghan carpet laid out on the floor covering a series of formless hummocks – it is a wry take on Minimalist floor sculptures. Kelley is always discussed in terms of his use of ‘low’ culture as a debasement of Modernism and penetrating social critique, but Baker’s obituary of the artist (published in October last year) addressed Kelley’s importance as a colourist, writing that the artist had once stated: ‘my large afghan works were color coded […] Lumpenprole was knitted in fall colors to evoke ageing.’
Affirming this reading, a burst of tragedy in technicolour follows in the ‘Half a Man’ series (1987–92): cheap cuddly toys lie in coffins or sit eagerly on arena-style carpets, as if waiting to be petted. This was shown alongside the iconic effigy-cum-colour-field-painting More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987). As Kelley put it: ‘If each one of these toys took 600 hours to make, then that’s 600 hours of love. And if I gave this to you, you owe me 600 hours of love, and that’s a lot.’ These also position the act of artisanal labour against the readymade. Kelley’s early banner works fill the first galleries and appear later in Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile (1985), a flagrant mimicry of the Rothko chapel. The potency of this originally scripted live performance is hard to grasp, as it now exists as an installation comprising drawings and other items, ultimately seeming a kind of reliquary.
Kelley was a performer who inhabited multiple personae: from Jesus Christ to a little girl, a janitor to a pole-dancer, an activist and feminist, a musician and writer, a teacher and quilt maker, a critic and satirist. Here, his presence, regardless of death, is hard to ignore, as he created an (at times cruelly comic) critique of what it might, or could, mean to be an artist. A small room is devoted to his earliest performances from the 1980s (many used simple faux-Minimalist objects in scripted performances as ‘demonstration objects’ echoing the work of Guy de Cointet), including photos, scripts and costumes.
The retrospective also contains a reduced version of Day is Done (2005), in which Kelley collected 365 photographs from high-school yearbooks of activities and ‘hazing’ rituals, and embarked upon (a never completed) series of ‘reconstructions’ of the images. This is a darkly subversive ride through the psychological underbelly of American pop culture: a soundtrack of Minimalist music, noise and dialogue is incorporated in an installation of filmed choreography, props and costumes displayed alongside the original images – ghosts brought back to life by Kelley to fill the ‘blank spaces’ of Educational Complex.
The final work on display, Mechanical Toy Guts (1991/2012), is also the last piece Kelley installed before he died. It is a sparse, lo-fi, pathetic-looking, handmade sculpture-cum-performance, formed from motorized toys that move, speak and sing – but that have been ‘skinned’ of their exterior body or fur. Connected in a circuit, their different sounds and sayings are mixed on a loop, laid out on an arena-shaped cloth (a remnant from Day is Done) with two plastic chairs for the audience. These fragile creatures sing and bleat strangled, saccharine and affirming phrases. Brutally unforgiving, the installation contains elements of many of Kelley’s cycles of work. Yet it offers no transcendence: the ‘performers’ are locked in a feedback loop of repetitive failure.
Vast in its content, this exhibition reinforces the labyrinthine quality of Kelley’s work and the multifarious roles and personae he inhabited. Yet what it clarifies most is that Kelley was never finished with a subject: he continually looked backward in order to move forward, and this, surely, is the ultimate role of a ‘retrospective’. As much as it is an ending, this is also a beginning.