Mike Kelley: Day Is Done

A few years back I was doing my usual weekend routine of ambling through Chelsea in New York. When I opened the hulking door of a Gagosian that day, against the mighty Chelsea winds, an intriguing darkness sucked me in. An attack of sound hit me like a cacophony of ill tuned children's choirs. Small stages & kinetic scenes (ex. a trippy, black lit livingroom with spinning furniture) along with giant props (ex. a homemade looking rocketship) rose up as obstacles in the darkened space. Video projections were thrown on surfaces everywhere. The placid breath of still photographs gave a moment of reprieve; a bright, awkward color image accompanied by a similar black & white one. I unknowingly fell into the warped rabbit hole known as Mike Kelley.

In this exhibit, titled Day Is Done, Mike Kelley restaged the awkward images of suburban ritual, taking old yearbook pictures and telling his own story of the twisted teenage rites of passage they recall. The overwhelming sets and props in the space were the backdrops for his remixed stories of American myth. Kelley took the collective conscience of a cross section of America and turned it inside out  with each remade frame. I was in love with Mike Kelley. The exhibit swallowed me up and spit me out and I never thought I would be able to see its fabled glory again... but then a few weeks ago I happened to be in L.A. during the MoCA's retrospective (ongoing until July 28th), a sweeping survey that prominently features my first introduction to Mike Kelley. (Actually second, if you count Sonic Youth's Dirty.)  

The exhibition at MoCA is sooooo thorough and Mike Kelley's projects each vastly different from the next that I am going to distill my experience to three pieces from the Geffen MoCA branch. But know: this show, and nearly every individual piece by Kelley, is enough to make one think and feel forever. I also want to note this exhibit is an important study in sensory storytelling, meaning and creative responsibility. It shows how one can melt down culture and reform it into something new that not only speaks to the original culture but also creates a(n often progressive) new meaning or critique. This show is required viewing for all you damn L.A. film people who seem to be losing sight of what being part of an artistic legacy truly means. YOU ARE PART OF AN ARTISTIC LEGACY! (end rant)

The Bell Jar: According to comic book myth, the capital (Kandor) of Superman's home planet (Krypton) was shrunken by a scientist and rescued by Superman, now hidden under a glass bell jar in his Fortress of Solitude. Kelley re-imagined the dwarfed metropolis in translucent, frosted, hulks of buildings, like small glowing cities delicately set atop pedestals and rock like formations, under thin layers of clear glass. These were complimented by lenticular Lichtenstin-ian images of bell jars that move with you, your position determining the freedom of whatever is trapped. A video glowed in the corner of a Superman dressed actor reading from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and other texts, the flatly impassioned feminist pulp of sorts, completing the overlapping of cultural reference. The room was a dim world with glowing spots of promise, an American palimpsest of a strange history we will leave behind that will be peered at and judged for future generations- both in Kelley's work and in the charged pop culture references that are his medium. 
The stuffed animals: These aging, dusty, thrift shop plucked toys are awkwardly positioned in configurations that evoke ritualistic offerings, the weight of aging, forgotten bonds, the grittiness in the squeaky clean normalcy of America, the mass production of our youth, a sadness & sadism in their fluffy, mangled furs. One part of this series shows a few animals encased in individual coffins, much like the sarcophagi of the Ancient Egyptians: when does pop culture become artifact? What will we be remembered for? What do we sacrifice?

A video piece whose name I don't know Part of a series called "Horizontal Tracking Shots": Behind a brightly painted, striped facade-like divider you sit on small metal benches facing three flat screens clicking along like a casino slot machine. Images of single colors fill the screens, sliding along like a tense game of Russian Roulette. Suddenly a pause and a painful snippet of a home movie culled from youtube appears, a short embarrassing moment immortalized. Then the colors return, ticking in anticipation of the next falling child or other embarrassing clip. This piece said more about me than any piece of art I have ever seen, how long could I look? Why am I looking? Please don't let that kid fall-O NO!! Are our lives a game of chance? Our traumas now digitally shared? All of the hurt now belonging to, or entertaining, everyone else? Or is it making us more empathetic, diffusing the pain through numbers & relativity? Chills.

Mike Kelley's fluid contextualization of images and his ability to master every and any medium was the most astounding part of this show. He made a signature twisted form of pop art out of the myths and traumas of unsung histories, he electrified the mundane, he exposed & perverted the inherent contradictions, expectations, fears, rules, and grotesque beauty of a country and of himself.  His way of telling the story of a particular America felt like a modern counter culture Epic tale. Image, word, sound binding us together through our shared, stone washed journey to our shared, fated ends...R.I.P Mike Kelley (1954-2012)

Note: Photos are not from MoCA exhibit specifically! No photos were allowed!



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.