Mike Kelley at PS1

October 27, 2013

By Ada Potter

The sheer scale of this retrospective is awe inspiring. This enormous exhibition displays upwards of 200 pieces and will only further cement Mike Kelley’s influence on younger artists working today.

The viewer is inundated by work in all mediums and materials. His video works prove to be harder to absorb in this setting. Often upwards of an hour, the films get routinely passed or taken as short clips. I found myself wanting to have the ability to access videos later on, at home via the internet, rather than in the hot, crowded galleries. Day is Done, one of his most well known pieces, uniquely exists as both video and sculptural installation. This hybrid form allows the viewer more freedom to walk through and experience the elements of the work at their own pace. The piece involves the re-creation and staging of found high school yearbook photographs. Kelly is re-performing the angst and awkwardness of adolescence. He is in some ways making an absurd anthropological study of the forms and roles we play.

I was surprised to be so interested in his later drawings and paintings. These works readily fit into the category of Fine Art object, and some are even labeled “Courtesy of Larry Gagosian”, but they hold a delicacy and an ambiguity that is lost in some of the earlier, more blunt conceptual statements. His hermaphrodite drawings and Naked Majas Series, while rendered in traditional materials, felt very inventive. The Nake Majas' are crudely rendered paintings clearly taken from pornography. But the genitals have been obliterated by fields of color, halting our voyeurism at its moment of apex. The series is based on the legend of The Frog King, which Bruno Bettelheim, the Austrian philosopher describes as a parable based in a freudian sexual awakening, which all women must go through. The kissing of the frog, a repulsive creature, is a stand in for overcoming disgust and fear of the male sex organ. Overcoming this initial revolution allows women to eventually find desire in the sexual other.  Mike Kelly alludes to this mythology by interweaving paintings of a rubber frog throughout the series. Perhaps this complicated subtext could be criticized as over intellectualizing images that might not contain the text they are meant to depict. But I find the images alluring and repulsive and powerful.

His use of mass culture as his material should, theoretically, make his work accessible to the general public. But his dark humor and abject scenarios distort our familiar cultural symbols. So much so that I am continuously surprised by his large audience. His stuffed animal pieces and cartoon imagery seem approachable enough, but as you get closer, physically and intellectually, the works take on an architecture of meaning that is richly complex. They are both seductive and repulsive, kitsch and high culture.  I found myself continually astonished by his the breadth of his creativity as well as by his razor sharp intellect.