Mike Kelley retrospective at MOCA


Last Friday, I attended the media preview for the Mike Kelley retrospective at MOCA and it’s amazing–the biggest showing of the much-loved L.A.-based artist’s work ever. It started with an assortment of short speeches, starting off with new MOCA director Philippe Vergne calling it a homecoming after debuting at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and making stops in Paris and New York. Mary Clare Stevens, Executive Director of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts described the artist’s personal involvement in the show’s evolution and Ann Goldstein, the former director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and exhibition curator, added that the show began as related to theme but shifted to chronology upon the artist’s death in 2012.


MOCA Curator Bennett Simpson emphasized MOCA’s history of supporting the artist (who was part of the museum’s “First Show” and has been in almost 30 more including one that he curated) and added that the current stop includes a Chinatown-related piece that has never been shown in Los Angeles before. Framed and Frame (1999) is located on the upper floor, and challenges the audience with concepts of context but also alludes to the Downtown L.A. area’s punk rock history via sex and drugs paraphernalia mixed in with the traditional wishing well icons.


Another large piece is Kandors (2007-2011), a collection of sculptures of Superman’s hometown reimagined from various comic book pages. The reference to the alien city, shrunken by the iconic hero’s arch-enemy Braniac and kept under glass, is esoteric to many but is folklore to hardcore comic book readers. Kelley created a video installation mashing up the four-color hero with the goth poetry of Sylva Plath, but never realized his plan to introduce the Art Forum scene to the Comic-Con crowd online.


In contrast to the perfectly made installations are Kelley’s raw paintings. While they are often in gloriously simple black and white, the ideas are typically given levels upon levels of depth with text. It is easy to imagine the Detroit-born artist moving to Los Angeles in the mid ’70s and going out of his mind in the same scene that spawned equally subversive and literate artists such as Raymond Pettibon and Manuel Ocampo.


I rather enjoyed the installation of Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), a colorful group of portraits and quotes that link art and crime. I was too hung up looking at the tributes to Dostoyevsky, Genet, Lord Byron, and other heroes from my English major youth to notice if there was a Manson painting at the end… Painting, illustration, sculpture, photography–Kelley not only tried every medium possible to critique social norms and artistic boundaries but have fun with them.


Perhaps Kelley’s best-known work among casual art fans like me involves thrift-shop quality stuffed animals accompanied by recorded voices sharing existential, psychological, and paranoid monologues and conversations. These are represented well in the side room, along with the legendary 26-minute Kappa (1986) video made in conjunction with Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, featuring Mary Woronov and mashing up Japanese folklore, Greek mythology, and Southern California apathy.


Educational Complex (1995) is another monumental piece, sprawling white architectural plastic that recalls every school that Kelley has attended and looking sterile, institutional, and military. MOCA curator Bennett Simpson wasn’t kidding when he said that Kelley’s art would envelope the visitor, and the overwhelming and even numbing piece is especially powerful when noting that Kelley was a teacher as well as student of art.


Mike Kelley opens to the public on March 31 and closes on July 28. It is located at the Geffen Contemporary (next to JANM in Little Tokyo) and is worth every penny of the $12 admission but can be visited for free on Thursday evenings. Check MOCA’s site for special talks and symposiums.


Ahh… Youth (1991)