Criticism
Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Multiple Layers of Significance: Mike Kelley at LA MoCA


Letter from… Los Angeles: Mike Kelley at the Museum of Contemporary Art
March 31 to July 28, 2014
The Geffen Contemporary at MoCA
Los Angeles, CA, 213 626 6222

Installation view, "Mike Kelley," 2014, at the LA MoCA. Courtesy of the Mike Kelley Foundation and LA MoCA. Photograph by Brian Forrest.

Installation view, “Mike Kelley” at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 2014. Photo by Brian Forrest, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The installation of “Mike Kelley” at LA MoCA is more comprehensive than any of its previous three presentations, at MoMA PS1, the Centre Pompidou, or the Stedelijk Museum, where former Stedelijk director (and former LA MoCA curator) Ann Goldstein first organized the show in 2012 in consultation with the Mike Kelley Foundation. The exhibition at MoCA was organized by Bennett Simpson and held in the Museum’s Geffen Contemporary, a former warehouse in Little Tokyo with 40,000 square feet of exhibition space. The Geffen’s open floor plan (with small galleries at the periphery) makes for a very different show than the most recent iteration, at New York’s PS1, which was broken up into smaller groupings due to the Museum’s diminutive galleries appropriated from former classrooms. The LA show puts particular focus on Kelley’s evocative, ritualistic and often hallucinatory video installations, which, shown simultaneously, take center stage in the Geffen’s enormous space. Here, sounds ricochet, lights flash and music drones, contributing to a feeling of sensory overload frequently attributed to the artist’s later works.

Kelley’s appropriation of kitschy stuffed animals and puppets, naughty cartoons and images from high school yearbooks have placed him in line historically with a “postmodern” rubric of production popularized by his Metro Pictures peers in the 1980s. However, rather than open-ended rejections of authenticity or originality (à la Richard Prince or Louise Lawler), Kelley’s work resonates with recurrent references to his own biography as expressed through his deep social and political investments. Be it via inquiries into the controversial subject of “memory repression” with his Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions (2000- 2006); the politics of labor with From My Institution to Yours (1987/2003); or the sanctity of art with his massive (and now iconic) More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987), the artist’s work is imbued with the vulnerable politics of our discursive and manifold selves.

Mike Kelley, Day is Done (detail), 198888. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of LA MoCA.

Mike Kelley, Switching Marys, 2004-2005. Mixed media with video projections, 74 x 166 x 40 inches. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

Day is Done (2005-2006), an epic multimedia installation composed of Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #2-32, opens the show and serves as an important barometer for Kelley’s ongoing artistic concerns. Central to the project is the experience of viewing each narrative from different angles and perspectives, a metaphor that aids the viewer in considering the artworks that follow. Day is Done was inaugurated by Kelley’s 30-minute video Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene), which is on view on a small monitor near the exhibition’s entrance. All of Kelley’s EAPRs were staged and scripted around images from high school plays found in yearbooks. Latching onto a new cultural investment in the study of repressed memory therapy, which rose in popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s due to a moral panic over alleged satanic abuse rituals, Kelley uses these installations to examine the multiple layers of signification in American folk rituals. Understanding the slippages between personal and collective memory, Kelley crafts a series centered on “socially acceptable” forms of performance, such as school plays, Halloween, and corporate “dress-up days.” In one scene, a cherubic middle schooler wanders out alone for a haircut and finds himself at the mercy of an obnoxious, sweaty barber who morphs into a vile, red-faced devil as standup comedian. In another, the same child is chased around a creaky attic by a ghoulish Virgin Mary, while he screams “I want to wake up!” Originally designed as a live 24-hour installation, Kelley hoped to eventually film 365 tapes, a monumental unrealized undertaking.

Mike Kelley, From My Institution to Yours, 1987. Acrylic on paper, ribbon, carpet, wood and aluminum, dimensions variable. Courtesy of LA MoCA.

Mike Kelley, From My Institution to Yours, 1987/2003, installation view, 194 x 186 3/8 x 123 1/2 inches. Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

An entire gallery is devoted to From My Institution to Yours (1987/2003), an installation that incorporates the artist’s Loading Dock Drawings from 1984. For the work, Kelley reproduced flyers that feature naughty cartoons or institutional gripes circulated among administrators at CalArts via fax. The wall facing the drawings features a stenciled fist in representation of workers’ solidarity, while a carrot dangles from the ceiling as the clichéd symbol of futile incentive. The relationship of the fist to the goofy cartoons speaks to the potential of these administrators to organize, even if only through shared grievances and blue humor. Originally, red tape was intended to connect the installation to the administrative offices of the institution in which it was presented. At MoCA, a door which reads “employees only” has been built alongside, a testament (albeit less impactful something the artist might have come up with) to Kelley’s original ideological intent.

A number of Kelley’s installation-cum-shrines are featured prominently, composed of plush toys, felt and afghan rugs which reinforce the artist’s complicated investment in childhood, memory and spirituality. Also on view is a selection of ephemera from early collaborative performance works — tape recorders, megaphones and whoopee cushions — which feel a bit precious in their given context. Perhaps the most compelling installation in the show is made up of Kelley’s monumental Kandors series of (1999 – 2007, 2009, and 2011), which taps a quality of failure that pervades the whole exhibition — not of pessimism so much as a sense of sympathy for inadequacy, the underdog, or the misunderstood. Kandors reproduces Superman’s fictional home planet of Krypton, shrunken by his arch nemesis Brainiac, in a series of hyperbaric bell jars that sputter, smoke, and glow neon. Each is reproduced according to the graphic history of the comic at different historical moments as closely as possible. Again, the complicated relationship of Superman to his home, the nostalgia for childhood and an attempt to fill gaps in memory left blank are central components to the piece. In the wake of Kelley’s untimely death, his monumental retrospective encourages us to come to terms with the complicated experience of childhood, imparting a sense of trepidation, wonderment and hopefulness.

Mike Kelley, Dancing the Quadrille (from the Reconstructed History Series), 1989. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

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Mike Kelley, John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (Including the Local Culture Pictorial Guide, 1968-1972, Wayne Westland Eagle), 2001, installation view, 136 1/2 x 216 1/4 x 249 inches. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

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Mike Kelley, Estral Star #3, 1989. Tied, found stuffed cloth animals, 23 x 10 1/2 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

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