Detail of Mike Kelley's City 0000 (2009-2011), all works lent by Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Trust (all photos Jeff Jahn)
There are some artists whose work always seems to exist out of time because it
deals in themes drawn from a past that never really seems to leave us, namely
the roots of civilization and the nostalgic sense of the individual moving within
its matrix of hierarchies and permissions. This is a special class of artist, ones
who engage the world almost as if they are cultural anthropologists, often through
personal source material.
Mike Kelley was such an artist and similar to Cy Twombly his work always seemed
to be a humanistic island unto itself and difficult to place in an art historical
lexicon that even today is still driven by timelines and trendy stylistic arbitrage.
Instead, with Kelley there was always a persistent melancholy, melded with childhood ideals and notions
of adult normalcy and transgression, all suffused with a strong Catholic upbringing
whose traditions of syncretism and penchant for reliquary were everywhere... which
Kelly then turned into enigmatic, often humorous and personal installation art,
films, paintings and sculpture.
Kelley was one less driven by the art world's various fads than the persistent
remnants of human efforts like; signage, rooms, finger painting, pop culture,
idealistic cities, photos, toys, playground equipment
, crocheting and his late
signature... stuffed animals. All of it evoked persistent nostalgia, which exists
in the present more out of the child-like habit of asking why? than the hubris
of an artist taking up impressive amounts of gallery space. A recent show at
Gagosian Gallery in 2011 titled Exploded Fortress of Solitude
gives one a sense of how fatalistic he felt about an individual's ability to retain
privacy and perhaps made comment on the gallery environment which eventually gets
sold piece by piece and scattered. There is always a darkness in Kelley's work.
That darkness was always a kind of crushing pressure (think of Superman's powers,
love life and status as lone survivor), which some in false hindsight might attribute to contributing
to the artist's death this past January... but that is just too easy to be a
responsible interpretation. Scholarship and a retrospective should bring out
the relevant complications soon enough, because Kelley's work since the beginning was always about the awkward
individual crushed between conflicting and often arbitrary forces. I even was lucky
enough to meet the man and from those few minutes I noted how he wanted to
observe others viewing his work, not him.
Mike Kelley at the Portland Art Museum
Till that inevitable retrospective (likely in L.A.) Portlanders are very lucky
to be treated to one of Kelley's most important late works, on loan from Nicolaus
Berggreun's considerable collection. No retrospective would be complete without
Planned before the artist's too soon demise, The
Portland Art Museum show presents the latest and largest of Kelley's recreations
. Kandor was the capital city of Krypton and birthplace of Superman, which according to one
thread of the golden age Superman comics was stolen and shrunken by Brainiac just before the planet's destruction
because he admired its architecture. Yes, a super villain with taste is always
the most dangerous... but this series of sculptures is less about Superman and his foes than
the way the city was treated inconsistently in hundreds of comic books. Sometimes
it glowed red with malice, other times it rather ominously required a special
gas to keep the peace for its shrunken inhabitants or allow them to assist
Superman. Tellingly, this final version has a somewhat grandly idealistic feel
to it, reflecting Superman's longing for a more rational life. It isn't kept
under a glass dome either so I don't buy the idea that this is a mournful piece. In fact it is the most upbeat of the Kandor works and the one version that doesn't seem particularly portable.
This final version of Kandor titled City 0000 is composed of hundreds of
cast resin blocks spires and public spaces, which gives the room a sense of
child like wonder. This fascination with ideals and their vulnerability gives
Kelley's work an ageless quality that always seems to be out of synch with a
lot of art it influenced. For example Martin Kippenbergers work owes a
lot to Kelley but his I don't give a Fuck quality is put in stark
contrast with this fantastic piece by Kelley. Clearly, Kelley cared... perhaps
a little too much, but his city of startling transparency is completely disarming
and charming rather than Kippenberger's disarming skin deep anti-charm offensive.
In contemporary art few artists have worn their heart on their sleeves like
Kelley and gotten away with it. Perhaps only Tracey Emin went further down the
road of confession?
The way Kelley plumbed the depths of his own childhood is amplified by the
way this lost city is always presented as small and completely at the mercy
of the viewers. It's nostalgia gives it a sense of being a relic, which is quite
related to his Catholic upbringing, not that Superman is a saint in Kelley's
lexicon... he's flawed and Kandor often reveals them (but not so here).
City 0000 also comments on the transparent material itself. Is this city a
surrogate for the relentless transparency of the information age?
Detail of Mike Kelley's The Sublime, 21 chromogenic prints ed. 5/5 (1984-1998)
Getting back to the theme of a reliquary, the two walls with an array of 21 photographs titled The Sublime also have this sense of being a procession of saints or as Kelley referred to them, "folk" images. The images
portray others climbing a mountain, more mountains, bullfighters, some pine trees,
a portion of a seemingly positive restaurant review, a sign for lost children
and the American Flag. All in all a catalog of sublime syncretism that mixes nationalism,
the precious child, adventure, food and nature.
None of those other images from The Sublime is quite as potent as the haggard
little sun-bleached troll doll photo though. That one image depicts Kelley's personal
totem, a troll that hung from the rear view mirror of his car for
years. Its arms wide in what Chris Cornell once dubbed The Jesus Christ
Pose says it all. Some have a St. Christopher's medal... others have a
troll. I interpret this as the personal vs. the received notion of the sublime
and therefore value.
It is a deft juxtaposition, The Sublime is an essay in the vacuously universal
vs. the personal and City 0000 is an idealized luminous civilization that is unattainable
but still tantalizing since it's rationalism puts the settlement itself above
the individual. The troll image is the lynchpin of the show.
Perhaps Superman was special because he was the last of his kind... Kelley
was special because he had a poet's touch for subject matter that in lesser
hands wallows in self importance/pity or political posturing. Kelley does neither,
he carefully balanced both forces of civilization and individual as unstable,
awkward dance partners. The little troll doll tips Kelley's hand though, he'd
rather take something manufactured and through existential companionship or
use, make its awkwardness a little more remarkable.. It also helps to have a
lost city from another planet on the other side of the room to make it all crystal
clear; that the viewer's awkward vaccinations are the soul of Mike Kelley's
work. I think Kelley would have enjoyed watching viewers vacillate between these
two polar opposite pieces.