Remembering Mike Kelley

The late Mike Kelley – a towering figure in contemporary art – is the subject of a new retrospective, opening at MOMA PS1 this weekend. Justin Jones reports.

Mike Kelley always said that his formative years of childhood can shape personal identity, it’s no surprise that a new retrospective of his work, opening this weekend at MoMA’s PS1, is focused around a reformed elementary school.

Kelley, who died last year of apparent suicide, was raised in a middle-class family in suburban Detroit, attended CalArts, and had a tremendously impactful thirty-five year career producing genre-defying works in every medium: from massive stuffed-animal sculptures to installations.

At the time of his tragic death last year, planning for a retrospective was already underway at the Stedeljik Museum in Amsterdam. For the New York leg of the tour, Peter Eleey, curator and associate director at PS1, was able to add works that had not been previously displayed due to extra space. The exhibition marks the first time the space has dedicated its entire facility to a single artist.

Upon entering the show, I couldn’t help but feel a bit unnerved. Screams reverberate from the left, while what could be described as a haunted house’s theme music plays to the right. A flag emblazoned with a satanic face and Mike Kelley’s name hangs toward the end of the hallway. I didn’t know what to expect, but I liked it.

Whatever the case, I diverted to the left, intrigued by the screams. Luckily (or not), things immediately got a bit playful. The back left corner is dedicated entirely to Kelley’s “Kandors” series – a thematic work based on Superman’s birthplace. Kept in Superman’s care, the bottled city that had been shrunken by his enemy represents Superman’s absent past and disconnection from Earth.

Kelley recreated the inconsistent renditions of the mythical city depicted throughout the comic series in luminous color resins. These molds of various sizes are illuminated in color-tinted bell jars and are seemingly connected to oxygen tanks and power sources. Every aspect is electrifying.

Ascending the nearest stairwell, some of Kelley’s video installations are introduced. The first one is the precursor film to Day is Done, which is exhibited on the second floor. Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene) uses a high school yearbook photo as a source for inspiration. The single scene video focuses on the tense relationship amid two men.

The continuation of this project #2-32 includes a series of installations and performance pieces that focus around the psychological concept of repressed memory. Using other yearbook photos as inspiration, these works are intended to fill in the blanks of those lost and forgotten memories through personal and mass-cultural experiences. Vampires, hillbillies, and devils (oh my!) the installation borderlines on the fantastical and horrifying with dramatic over-sized sets housing satanic images and even a demon baby in a manger.

Kelley begins to deal with his own repressed memory in his miniature recreation of every school he ever attended, entitled Educational Complex. Forming a small-scale community out of every institution -- and even his home -- Kelley has left every structure that he could not remember in detail blank – playing with the idea that his own educational and artistic guidance might have triggered psychological strains.

One of the most intriguing works is a sculptural installation set within an almost pitch black room. This one requires the audience to be directly interactive – you have to get on all fours and crawl deep inside the dark passageway. So: if you’re claustrophobic, you will definitely want to skip this. What you get at the end is a peephole for a private moment that rapidly becomes very voyeuristic. The shower scene from the 1982 sex-fueled film Porky’s is projected onto the center screen edited in such a way that it takes everything to look away and push yourself back out.

Returning back to a more playful tone, Kelley’s numerous works that include a copious amount of discarded stuffed animals and knitted objects are introduced. By using savaged plush dolls, crocheted blankets, and our one-time stuffed best friends, Kelley forms them into various forms – at some points resembling human genitalia.

Taking a more grandiose appearance, Kelley created a later work out of similar discarded objects. Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites takes on American consumer culture of excessive bulk-buying and waste. These massive clusters hang harmoniously balanced within a medium sized gallery. Geometric forms line the wall and fill the room with a subtle scent of pine – hinting at the name.

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These works represent only a small portion of the more than two hundred and fifty works by Kelley inhabiting PS1. The show is impressively curated – and the complete range of emotions and inspiration evokes Mike Kelley’s omnipresence throughout the entire retrospective.

Mike Kelley is on exhibit at MoMA’s satellite Contemporary space, PS1, through February 2, 2014. The exhibition will make its final stop in March at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.