For the first time ever, MoMA PS1 has dedicated the entire building to a comprehensive retrospective of a single artist’s work, and for Mike Kelley to be that artist could not be more appropriate.
Kelley, who killed himself by asphyxiation last year, had what some would call a sick sense of humor, and many of his pieces — usually those involving video — poke fun of and analyze the education system, making the halls of the old school an almost perfect venue.
The show is quintessential Kelley, featuring more than 200 pieces including some of his most memorable works throughout his 30 or so years as an artist.
Many of the works are disturbing but in an exciting way that stimulates the mind and makes the real world seem dull in comparison.
One such piece, “Pay for Your Pleasure,” a prismatic spectrum of color that runs along a separate corridor, is one of the show’s highlights. Lining the walls of the hallway are large portraits of celebrated artists, poets and philosophers painted in a monochromatic graphic style — similar to those painted on Barnes & Noble canvas bags — each paired with an uneasy quote on the outlaw aspect of creativity.
By the time you reach the end of the hallway, your mind is stimulated by the almost opposing juxtaposition of bright colors and dark statements.
The last piece is different, though, as Kelley installed an artwork made in prison by a convicted murder. Each time the piece is displayed, it is by a different killer; at PS1, the criminal was Arthur Shawcross, known as the Genesee River Killer, who murdered 14 people in his lifetime.
Other works, such as “Day is Done,” are elaborate funhouses featuring videos, sound, statues and multimedia installations inspired by high school yearbook photos, pageants and sports and theater productions; some are almost dreamlike. They overstimulate the senses and put the viewer face to face with Kelley’s views on popular culture.
“My entrance into the art world was through the counterculture, where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and pervert it to reverse or alter its meaning,” Kelley once said. “...Mass culture is scrutinized to discover what is hidden, repressed, within it.”
Unlike that of many artists, Kelly’s work does not develop linearly. He frequently returns to underlying themes of repressed memories, disjunctions between selfhood and social structures and the lines between the sacred and the profane.
Those themes are ever clear throughout the exhibit.
One of the artist’s more well-known pieces, “Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites,” features a large celestial-like object comprised of stuffed animals that is suspended in the middle of the room. Surrounding it, smaller circular satellites also made from stuffed animals are placed in such a way that they resemble a cuddly version of the solar system.
It is not a happy piece to look at. It is disturbing but like the rest of Kelley’s work, there is something exciting yet savage about the work, and despite the subtle feeling that you shouldn’t enjoy Kelley’s work, you do. It’s an exhilarating experience.
“Horizontal Tracking Shot of a Cross Section of Trauma Rooms” is another fascinating piece that features a flat wooden surface with 11 vertical stripes painted on it. Behind the board, four television screens appear sporadically showing videos from YouTube.
The piece is supposed to represent repressed memory syndrome, in which even though an individual cannot recall an event, it still affects the person subconsciously. It is theorized that much of what makes us who we are has to do with repressed memories that dictate our emotions and how we approach everyday situations.
All in all, the exhibit is an experience unlike any other. The old school walls complement Kelley’s tongue-in-cheek analysis of pop culture and repressed memory in such a way that you feel almost transported from the mostly industrial streets of Long Island City to the hilarious and imaginative mind of Kelley.
In addition to the exhibit, MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions will coincide with Mike Kelley’s work, highlighting the importance of critical reflection, performance and music. Participants in the workshops include long-time collaborators of Kelley and scholars, musicians and artists who were influenced by his work. The full schedule is available on the MoMA PS1 website.
Also, the museum is selling an accompanying fully illustrated 400-page catalogue of Kelley’s work, which includes many pieces not featured at the exhibit.