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Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1


New York City – Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mike Kelley’s body of work is raw, unsettling, and complex. Unfortunately, the retrospective currently on view at MoMA/PS1 is none of those things. Perhaps this exhibition would have been well situated at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center about 10 years ago, when the facilities were a little less polished and the galleries weren’t packed with the brunch & stroller crowd (despite, or maybe because of, the adult content warning that greets visitors at the entrance). This highly anticipated exhibition has received top marks from all of the critics, which is not to say that it is a bad show – just not the one that I wanted to see.


(image via)

The ground floor galleries are largely dedicated to a collection of works dealing with Kandor, the capital city of Superman’s home planet Krypton. A storyline in the comic involves the villain Brainiac capturing the city, shrinking it, and containing it in a bell jar. Kelley’s work attempts to arrive at a definitive depiction through sculptures, animations, and videos. These works are visually dramatic but conceptually obscure. The video Superman Recites Selections from ‘The Bell Jar’ and Other Works by Sylvia Plath offers a bright reprieve. It features a hunk in a dimestore costume against a black backdrop doing just as the title indicates. This weird conflation of American literary cultures is more immediately felt than the obscurity of the sculptures. It takes some time to uncover, but there is a connection to Kelley’s work on The Uncanny through repetition of images, subject matter from the collective unconscious, and anxiety embodied in the disaster and confinement of the shrunken city. The artist’s deep delve into the subject is fascinating, but if you didn’t make it past that first group of galleries, you would have thought Mike Kelley was some kind of pop-architect.

Similarly to the focus on Kandor, the main gallery on the third floor is dedicated exclusively to the Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction series. This room features numerous loud and confusing multi-media installations. Found images that might be photographs from yearbooks or community newsletters are re-enacted or are the starting point for videos and sculptures. Meant to exorcise repressed childhood trauma, the resultant works are equal parts humorous and horrifying.

There are so many different moments and fixations in the artist’s career – collaborations with contemporaries like Paul McCarthy and Tony Oursler, performances, the astronaut John Glenn, Detroit, stuffed animals – that it is impossible to summarize everything in one blog post. However it would be remiss of me not to mention one piece that exists in the collective unconscious of a certain generation, which is the group of photographs that became the cover of Sonic Youth’s album Dirty.


 (image via)

The piece is a grid of photographic portraits of stuffed animals and at the center, the artist just as lonely, frayed, and pitifully adorable as the other little discarded weirdos. I usually shirk away from imposing too much on an artist’s interior life, but just as we anthropomorphize the creatures in the photos, the artist’s face is a blank canvas on which to project our own readings.

Disappointingly, there is no fulcrum to the show, no hard earned climax, and not a clear understanding of this artist. With the artist’s suicide in 2012, what might have been a mid-career retrospective suddenly became a definitive exhibition of Kelley’s gesamtkunstwerk. A subway ad touts the show as “the first comprehensive retrospective”, which I’m not sure is a fact that warrants positive marketing. Maybe the curators could have used a little more time to wrap their heads around Kelley’s career. The work itself is muscular and bears the evidence of the artist as an incredible influence on other generations. This exhibition, however, might be a rare instance where the artist serves the institution with credibility, rather than the other way around.

Go see it though. Kelley deserves your attention and there is so much to see and think about in his work. Kelley is the kind of artist whose work marinates and reveals itself over time, and warrants repeat viewings. The ultimate tribute to Kelley would be to restage the retrospective in its entirety in ten years time, the way he did with his 1992 ICA London exhibition The Uncanny at Tate Liverpool in 2004. By 2023 we may have had time enough to begin our comprehension.

On view until February 2, 2014 at MoMA/P.S.1

Written by Rose Edward

Written by
Rose Edward

Rose Edward is the nom de plume of a Brooklyn based contemporary art enthusiast. In her real life, she works for a non-profit artist workspace and has a background that spans museums and commercial galleries. She has curated exhibitions and artist projects in New York and abroad.

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