On Saturday, I attended Night at the Museum at MoMa PS1, hosted by Larry Gagosian and Metro Pictures, to experience Mike Kelley a retrospective of the late artist. I use the word experience because that is what this tremendous show is; an enthralling experience. It is the first show dedicated to a solo artist that encompasses the museum in its entirety.
Kelley’s suicide in 2012, at age 57, shocked the art world but the legacy of work he left behind is awe-inspiring. Somehow an exhibition that spans several floors and the full spectrum of media (paintings, performances, drawings, sound art, sculptures) feels surprisingly cohesive. This is what is so impressive about Kelley’s oeuvre. He was never tied down to a specific medium. To him the medium was never the focus of the work but rather a vehicle to express his beliefs through recurring themes. Some of the themes found again and again throughout his work include commentary on popular culture, social classes, youthful rebellion, repressed childhood memories and sexuality.
A popular room in the show includes Kelley’s Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites from 1991/1999. Massive groups of color coordinated plush toys hang from the ceiling surrounded by harshly angled wall sculptures. These masses have the ability to exist as beautiful, tragic, trivial and complex all at once. From far away these masses exist as an exploration of shape and form but up close the making out of these plush toys conjure up feelings of childhood and even with their bright colors induce a feeling of melancholy.
In Educational Complex, Kelley created miniature dioramas of all the schools he attended throughout his life and connected them in a maze like structure. He left out areas in his models that he could not remember and referred to them as “repressed” zones. This was the start of his work with repressed-memory syndrome and led commentary to his feelings regarding the US education system.
Kelley’s comic fandom can be seen behind the series of sculptures titled Kandor Project, which is named for the capital of the birthplace of the character Kal-El more commonly known as Superman. In the comic book mythos Superman’s Kryptonian city is miniaturized and the comic book hero keeps its remaining remnants in a bottle. Kelley’s different reconfigurations of the same city refer to the different portrayals of Kandor in the comics and relate again to his work with memory recall and allowed him to play with creating three-dimensional sculpture out of two-dimensional images.
Kelley is one of the most significant artists of the past quarter century and his eclectic body of work is worthy of a museum show of this magnitude. An old public school in Queens seems a fitting location for an artist whose work often commented on the education system and who spent most of his life learning and teaching.