Mike Kelley: Laughing at Deadlines

by Tom McGlynn, Winter 2012

The first image I ever saw attributed to Mike Kelley, in the early 1980s, was his appropriation of a well copied and circulated office joke in which a sequentially animated character bounces up and down with laughter with the punch line, “ You want it when?” At the time I thought it a canny choice for conflating art in the age of mechanical reproduction with an art world imperative to mindlessly crank out culture. Inside of this high take on low irony was an intimate identification with a working-class resistance to keeping up with abstract quotas. This sentiment could hold true for the office worker and the art worker alike.

Born in 1954 in a suburb of Detroit, Mike Kelley was a brilliant interlocutor for an erstwhile Middle America whose assembly line dreams lay re-possessed in thrift shops and recuperated in its teenagers’ impulsive subcultures. Across this wasted plain Kelley laughed up a tornado of demons that combined (in increasingly antic, recombinant scenarios) lapsed Catholic taste with existential philosophy, crackpot bricolage with the wreckage of Modernist theory, mental institution aesthetics (and ethics) with art institutional critique and adolescent desire with ritualized farce. He did so with an extraordinary sense of composition and color, not so much derived from abstract formal logic as much as it seemed scraped from the inside of his skull, a psychedelic byproduct of a particularly vivid, and periodically bad, trip.

Kelley moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to attend Cal Arts where he was no doubt influenced by the laid back conceptual art of some of the older artists he met there, like John Baldessari. It seems as if this deadpan approach to high concept suited him well since it is a thread that has run through the length of his career. In a 1985 Artforum article entitled “American Prayers,” his longtime friend, and the bassist for Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon, mentions his knack for creating “structuralist devices to make fun of the myth of rational thought which led to the myth of progress.” The imperative of Modernist determinism was yet another deadline to be laughed off. Of course there were other artists who took on this challenge in the mid-1980s like Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, and even to some extent, Jeff Koons. While Koons offered a hard, stainless steel, reflective bunny (pedestrian pathos forged into commodity fetish) Kelley went soft, with collections of sewn, knitted and stuffed cuddle creatures gleaned from second-hand shops and Salvation Army centers. Both artists understood the logic of pathological recuperation of sentiment and how this became hot content in an increasingly cold-shouldered world. Kelley, at the time, however, seemed to distain highly fabricated and polished artifacts, favoring instead the abject jetsam of what might be termed “surplus sentiment,” thereby not only recuperating empathic longing but also emphasizing the hand-crafted object over the mass-produced, the impure and raggedy intention over the slick and obscure object of desire. This type of choice made evident his light-footed genius for being a formidable discussant in postmodern polemics, while simultaneously fashioning and throwing spitballs from the back of the lecture hall. His transgression wasn’t really one of arrested development, however (a common critique leveled at him by his detractors), so much as it was one of intentionally arresting and creatively analyzing the intentions of a culture that had gone seriously off the skids.

Remembering his mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum in 1993, Catholic Tastes, I can recall the sense I had that Kelley, whose work I had experienced episodically in regular shows at Metro Pictures gallery in New York, had finally arrived at a point where his sociological slumming and philosophical auditing had reached a perfect balance of pathos and logic, of humane content and a serious study of its conceptual degradation. Although he was consistently and wickedly ironic, Kelley also seemed to manage a soft spot for societal fuck-ups, both in the specific and universal sense. His project never became subject to the volatile insider trading of postmodern theoretical stock, as many of his contemporaries’ work had. Prince and Koons seem long-since vested by the dominant market to represent this particular co-opting of radical credibility. Sherry Levine’s 2011 retrospective at the Whitney embalmed any transgression in institutional amber. Museums have become the (very expensive) second-hand shops of ruined cultural intentions. In contrast, Mike Kelley was not only a clever recalcitrant but also an artist of highly refined intellect and intuition. By trolling marginalized subcultures (most often his own) for a tangential reading of failed intentions, Kelley’s work embodied, projected and almost predicted the most recently missed deadlines of so-called “serious” culture’s mandate for a new and improved future. John C. Welchman, in “The Mike Kelley’s in Mike Kelley,” explains the artist’s modus operandum along these lines:

“Repression-production makes a Kelleyan pair with regression-movement, a helter-skelter of returns to anality, infantile object attachments, post-mirror-stage childhood and pre-sex adolescence. For Kelley such moves are not primitivizing, ‘escapist’ or nostalgic… Instead he insists on tracking the implications of regression not ‘outside,’ but ‘within the culture,’ correlating them with an enquiry into social ‘failures’ and dysfunctionality; remembering that the act of going back, especially to the fuzzy moment of becoming adult, has an equivalent in the gesture of artistic making.”

Kelley’s work, from about the mid-1990s up until his death in January 2012, along with the work of his friends and contemporaries, like Tony Oursler, Jim Shaw and Raymond Pettibon, became rapidly recognized, celebrated and assimilated in an overheated art market underwritten by newly distributed wealth at the top. The ultimate irony of the situation of his success and how it undermined his abject aesthetic had to have seriously troubled Kelley. His project was so intimately linked with shadowing the social failures of the same culture that had come to lionize him. Material success necessitated his setting up an extensive studio with assistants (an assembly line of sorts) to help fabricate his work. There was a sensual diminishment I felt in his work, somewhere in the later ’90s when I became aware of how the delegation of fabrication in some of his installations left machined echoes of the whining router and busy drill press. While the installations became more ambitious and scaled–up, it seemed as if his crucial balance of weighty concept with flighty form had become somewhat compromised. This had to be a concern for an artist whose conceptual project was so intimately connected to its irresolute materiality. How does one continue to make impertinent, resistant art when its production moves from a do-it-yourself, creative recuperation of regressive psychological states into a mode of production that might just fit too well within the logic of late capitalism?

Kelley spun his own asymmetrical eddy in the churning tides of art world tastes and popular culture. He may have recently felt hard pressed to creatively annotate and critique the implications of regression within contemporary culture when that culture increasingly does such an insane job of constantly relapsing into and recycling its own pathologies. That “fuzzy moment of becoming adult” seems to have become extended indefinitely. “You want it when?” has become “You can have it now!” but it will be forever incomplete. The punch line without the deadline is not as funny.