Since the late 1970s, Mike Kelley has produced a funny, nasty, transgressive, and sharp body of work that takes as its target notions of taste, morality, authority, and social responsibility and addresses the American social and psychological condition. Kelley grew up in a working-class community in the suburbs of Detroit, where he became involved with the counterculture scenes of rock and free jazz—from noise-rock pioneers Iggy and the Stooges to cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra—that became ideal critical tools for subverting ideological orders.
Kelley moved to Los Angeles in 1976, and it was there, as a student at CalArts, that he produced a series of performance works in which he collapsed his interest in popular culture with an acute awareness of art history, including such movements such as Dada, Futurism, Fluxus, and Viennese Actionism; artists like Vito Acconci, Guy de Cointet, La Monte Young, and Öyvind Fahlström; and events such as the Destruction in Art Symposium (London, 1966). Based on the urge to overcome the limitations projected on sculpture by a postminimal, postconceptual art discourse, his early performances (first realized at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions space in 1978) consisted of the artist manipulating handmade props that might also be seen as performative sculpture.
If the earliest performances were merely organized around nonsensical recitations and incantations about the objects Kelley built and their fluctuating meanings, over the years they became longer and more scripted, involving collaborators such as artist Tony Oursler and the band Sonic Youth. The performances also provided an early structure for what is still the core content of Kelley’s work: an attempt to give shape to his unforgiving representation of the American psyche and its obsessions with religion, national history, education, adolescence, sexual identity, and the role of gender in the structure of social practices. These performances and their props have defined a unique visual language as well as a methodology relying on a distrust of conventional aesthetics, both of which are still at play in his work today.
In the sculpture Four Part Butter-Scene N’Ganga (1997), four washtubs full of brightly colored, mysteriously textured gooey stew and plastic fruits and vegetables are connected by a fixture of pipe and wire. At its base, each washtub is attached to a second, inverted tub that houses a speaker emitting excerpts from the sound track of the violently erotic “butter scene” in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. The entire construction is suspended from the ceiling in an X shape. The tubs themselves are estimations of “n’ganga pots,” cauldrons containing a fetid stew used in Santería rituals. According to Kelley, “The n’ganga is considered the repository of enslaved tortured souls who are bound to carry out the evil spirits of the magician … the n’ganga stew is the limitless erotic made manifest … it is the pot which gives chaos its form and, in doing so, limits it.”2
The sculpture reflects on the fear of the unknown, of the different. Starting with a 1989 news item about the abduction of a twenty-one-year-old white college student from Texas by a drug-smuggling gang who practiced black magic, Kelley takes this source to the next level by connecting it to Bertolucci’s film, an “icon” of cultural and sexual aggression in which an aging American man (Marlon Brando) has his way with a young French woman (Maria Schneider). Sexuality and otherness constitute the American “ecology of fear” that Kelley is referring to in this X-rated and X-shaped installation.
The formal aspect, whether the X-shaped mobile or the binary structure of the inverted washtubs, appeared in Kelley’s work as early as the “demonstrational” sculptures or performance-related diagrams of the late 1970s. Such a shape, answering neither to the abstract code nor to the figurative tradition, has been analyzed by art historian Howard Singerman as a testimony to Kelley’s knowledge of structuralism and the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss: “The binary operation is, for structuralism, the ‘smallest common denominator of all thoughts’; appropriately, it is marked in structuralism’s formal diagrams by an encircled X. The X lies at the center of the world and it builds the world in its image, through its repetition. But if it is the world’s core—its content—it is also, as Kelley insists, empty. The center is not one but two, not presence but absence.”3Four Part Butter-Scene N’Ganga seems to be an anomaly that mirrors acknowledged foundations of cultural dysfunction through a formal structure that resists any identifiable categorization.
The work Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid, No. 4: Stevenson Junior High and Satellites (2002) displays another angle of Kelley’s deconstruction of American society, in this case by juxtaposing the authoritarian status of architecture as an expression of social order with his own personal history. The work, a mobilelike sculpture that hangs from the ceiling, is based on the architectural model of a school Kelley attended as a youth. Geometrical blocks represent the way he remembers the architecture, while a floor plan of the building maps out recovered memories of events that occurred in “repressed spaces.” This sculpture continues an investigation that started in 1995 with the work Educational Complex, an architectural model of every school Kelley ever went to. These projects have grown out of the artist’s interest in the phenomenon of Repressed Memory Syndrome. Memories of traumatic experiences such as childhood sexual abuse can be completely blocked from the conscious mind, leading to a variety of problems, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. In some psychological circles, it is believed that only by retrieving and confronting these repressed memories can a patient recover a healthy state.4 With Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid, No. 4: Stevenson Junior High and Satellites Kelley—in a way that owes some debt to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish as well as to artist Dan Graham’s photography series Homes for America—unfolds his obsession with what he perceives as the dysfunction of the American dream and its roots in the educational system.
Kelley’s work provides a topography of the American subject as it develops through social, personal, political, and historical spaces. Informed by his knowledge of subversive countercultures, vernacular traditions, high art, and psychology, the work elaborates a methodology of watchful disrespect that leads the viewer to reconsider hidden, familiar things—what Sigmund Freud named the Uncanny—that have undergone repression only to reemerge again.5
Mike Kelley, “Land-O-Lakes/Land-O-Snakes,” in Kentaro Ichihara, Mike Kelley: Anti-Aesthetic of Excess and Supremacy of Alienation (Tokyo: Wako Works of Art, 1996), 17–23. ↩
Ibid., 21. ↩
Howard Singerman, “Charting Monkey Island with Lévi-Strauss and Freud,” in Elisabeth Sussman, ed., Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994). ↩
On this topic, see Mike Kelley, “Missing Time—Works on Paper 1974–1976, Reconsidered,” in José Lebrero Stals, ed., Mike Kelley, 1985–1996, exh. cat. (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani, 1997). ↩
Kelley, “Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny,” in Foul Perfection—Essays and Criticism, John C. Welchman, ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002), 70–99. ↩