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Mike Kelley made a career out of rebelling against himself, the art world, and society at large, perpetually stuck in a beautifully punk, adolescent experiment. At 19 Kelley joined the experimental noise punk collective Destroy All Monsters, along with other artists Niagara, Jim Shaw, and Cary Loren. They described themselves as “anti-rock” and created cacophonous, brilliant and sometimes inaccessible songs. Once they disbanded, Kelley transferred his rebellious streak toward his art career, becoming one of the most influential artists of our time. He executed every artistic medium imaginable—drawing, painting, sculpture, video, mixed media, and installation—and did so prodigiously. For the first time since 1993 a comprehensive survey of 270 works by Kelley covers three floors of MoMA PS1. It is the only time the museum has ever surrendered the entire museum to one artist, and rightfully so.
Much of his work explores how identities are formed growing up through pop culture and the classroom, so it is fitting that the retrospective take place at PS1, a former Long Island City elementary school. Installations such as Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, a room full of tangled stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling, most unapologetically play with iconic symbols of childhood. Day is Done, a 25-piece video installation, grapples with the so-called innocence of youth. Various clips from high school yearbooks, school plays, and extracurricular activities are juxtaposed with both angelic and satanic imagery. Little girls playing dress up are played in a loop next to a creepy nativity scene and images of Dracula. In the center, a Styrofoam grave stands, ominously reminding us of Kelley’s untimely suicide in 2012.
The installation, as well as many of Kelley’s other works, can read as monuments to pop culture, though the artist was wary and to some extent hateful of mass culture. Said Kelley, “My entrance into the art world was through counter-culture, where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and pervert it to reverse or alter its meaning… Mass culture is scrutinized to discover what is hidden, repressed within it.”
By excavating mass culture, Kelley sought to tap into both his own and the collective repressed memory. The images he appropriates are humorous, disturbing, and most importantly relatable because they are the shared yet individual emblems of childhood.
Much of his work seems experimental, if afraid to move beyond his obsession with adolescence, something Kelley was aware of and amused by. Most literally, this eternal experiment is represented on the first floor, where a laboratory-like maze full of enlarged beakers and psychedelic crystals are displayed.
The survey could be interpreted pessimistically as an epitaph for Kelley, full of melted candles, boyhood toys and ephemera found at roadside memorials. After his death a spontaneous monument was created near his studio in Highland Park, where mourners left memorabilia similar to the materials Kelley used in his art.
Yet the show is more of a wonderland than a crypt, and more poignantly a glimpse into Kelley’s childlike, disordered subconscious. It reveals a man who found the heroic in the sentimental, the depraved in the ordinary, and the humor in his own delusions.
“Mike Kelley” will run from October 13 through February 2.