Entering Mike Kelley’s retrospective at the newly renovated Stedelijk in Amsterdam was as trippy as getting off the tram and being confronted by the building itself. The Stedelijk reopened in September of 2012 after more than eight years of renovations with a new wing designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects; their addition – a futuristic white basin atop a glass atrium – has been nicknamed “The Bathtub”. Kelley’s excellent retrospective encompasses all of the galleries in this new structure and boasts some 200 works making it the largest exhibition of his work to date; the pieces gathered date from as early as 1974 to just before his untimely death in 2012 at age 57. At the entrance to the show, we were greeted by acrylic on wood paintings, textiles, works on paper and photos giving a small glimpse into the dizzyingly diverse media Kelley employs. Kelley’s production is so varied that the uninitiated would be excused for thinking the works on view are by different artists but there’s a common sensibility – a comedic, dark tenor – that pervades. Installed roughly chronologically, the exhibition highlights Kelley’s persistent and astonishingly creative examination of self and society at large, triggering a range of themes including class relations, memory and sexuality.
Some of the earliest works in the show are works on paper dating from 1974-76/1993-94 and it’s fascinating to see how they foreshadow what is to come. Kelley started these when he was an undergrad student at the University of Michigan and they are mishmash of many of the elements that continue in his work for decades: the drawings include self-portraiture, art historical references, pop culture imagery, and allusions to disturbed psychological states. One of the most understated works in the show is one of the most poignant – an early set of drawings called Personality Crisis, 1982. In this triptych the artist has written his name three times on graph paper first in a calligraphic cursive with curled flourishes and the second rendition a sharply pointed font that is a cross between Greek-style letters and those found on a concert t-shirt. The final version erodes into an illegible scrawl.
Kelley’s use of different media explodes in the late 1980s. At the time of his death last year, Kelley was considered one of the most influential contemporary artists of his time and walking through his retrospective it’s easy to see why. In 2005, the Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz described an installation by Kelley as a ground-breaking example of “clusterfuck aesthetics” – one of those overloaded, multi-faceted, multi-media experiences that is so commonplace today. Kelley’s use of media explodes in the late 1980s. Half a Man, 1987-1992 is a harbinger of that style with stuffed animals arranged on felt and knit blankets as if conducting their own picnics, lying prostrate, or set up in a tidy line; a Panasonic tape deck plays a sinister monologue related to gender, sexuality and family with tense and emotional statements like “I didn’t ask for life”, “don’t leave me”, “you shall not go out and no one shall come in!” With this juxtaposition, Kelley manages to transform the mundane into the strange and startling. More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, 1987 is a raucous, colourful mosaic of smiling faces that also employs stuffed animals collected from thrift stores. The artist has woven these toys together with afghans on a canvas to create a large tableau. Stuffed toys are associated with the unconditional love of children and the “love hours” of the title refers to the time and effort that went into creating the work – the idea that this effort cannot be repaid also evokes a subtle sense of guilt. Kelley’s use of children’s toys is always tinged with a slightly unsettling quality and quietly positioned in the corner of a room dominated by them, is his work Manipulating Mass-Produced Idealized Objects and Nostalgic Depiction of the Innocence of Children, 1990, an image of two naked figures in what looks like basement with plywood walls; they hold stuffed animals similar to the ones featured in Kelley’s installations in sexualized positions.
Kelley grew up in Wayne, Michigan in a working class family and much of his work poetically and comically evokes issues around class. From My Institution to Yours, 1987 is a large-scale, 3-walled structure with cartoons on the three walls commenting on hierarchy in in contemporary art institutions; a large fist symbolizes solidarity while a carrot connotes incentive – a sign stating “workers unite” is strewn on the floor and broken in half. Lumpenprole, 1991 is a large-scale installation in which the artist has hidden various small objects under a large knitted afghan blanket; the title refers to a subclass of workers who resist social change due to their lack class consciousness which Kelley metaphorically evokes by throwing a blanket over the items which remain hidden from view.
That this expansive exhibition commands your attention across two floors is a real testament to Kelley’s acute material sensibility and the incredible diversity of his production; you never know what to expect next. Known for working with found objects, his astonishing Memory Ware works are named after a genre of Canadian folk art in which everyday objects are decorated with small objects like shells, beads and buttons. Kelley has taken tiny objects like pearl beads, costume jewellery, pins, necklaces and buckles and created densely woven canvases from them. His monumental John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (Including the Local Culture Pictorial Guide, 1962-1972, Wayne/Westland Eagle), 2001 is a room-sized installation in which the artist has encrusted a sculpture of astronaut John Glenn with pieces of broken ceramic, glass and debris from the Detroit River. He creates an homage to an American hero using refuse from his adolescent home. Kelley often referred to pop culture in his practice and in 1999, he began an exploration of Kandor, Superman’s birthplace – the story goes that Superman was sent to Earth as a baby to escape the destruction of his home planet, Krypton. Kandor, Superman’s home city, however, was not destroyed but shrunk and bottled by a villain; Superman eventually rescues his home city and protects it under a bell jar, fueling it using tanks of atmosphere. For several years Kelley created depictions of this fictional world including glowing glass domes containing miniature cities within and colourful gas tanks exploring the changing representation of Kandor while also examining the formal properties of reflection and translucency.
Climbing to the second floor, we were greeted with a cacophony of sights and sounds – several unconventional video installations were crowded into a single room; an entire theatre is also devoted to Kelley’s longer films. In a room unto its own was Horizontal Tracking Shot of a Cross Section of Trauma Rooms, 2009, a painting-sculpture-video hybrid. A multi-coloured panel painting supported by a metal brace sits in the centre of the room; on the verso of the panel painting three TV screens are installed that play abstract imagery until it is abruptly interrupted by scenes of violence and shock – children scream as they are hit, a monkey attacks a child, someone is surprised in the shower. Nearby there is a row of paintings featuring naked women holding dildos in bright colours, above which is installed a row of paintings of comically cute frogs. Such is the wacky, strange, dark and cheeky world Kelley presents.
These are just a few of the highlights of this first-rate retrospective which manages to demonstrate the ongoing themes in Kelley’s practice while astonishing the viewer with the artist’s incredible facility across an array of media. The curators should be commended for the creative installation with works hung above doorways and sometimes very high, banner-like, taking advantage of some of the lofty ceilings of the new wing of the Museum while adding to the irreverent and disorderly nature of the artist’s work; they seem to have a real respect and understanding of Kelley’s aesthetic. Mike Kelley is only on view for another week or so in Amsterdam so if you miss it there, make sure to catch up with it at one of its future venues including Centre Pompidou, Paris, MoMA PS1, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles