Mike Kelley Retrospective

August 1, 2014


The one and only time I happened to see the late Mike Kelley was at Beyond Baroque in one of his first major public presentations. I was not as impressed with his performance as I was with Johanna Went, whose work was also being featured at BB around this period. The younger poets showing up at Beyond Baroque at the time, however, such as Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler, as well as fiction writer Benjamin Weissman, were enthusiastic about Kelley’s flare for self-centered intensity. Kelley seemed to have the charisma of the undeterred: what other choice was available, his taciturn presence on the stage seemed to insist.

Kelley’s charisma, it turned out, derived in part from his desire to subvert some inner dichotomies that he knew he was not responsible for. If post-modernism denied the transparent culminations of any knowledge-oriented project, Kelley was not about to succumb to some easy road to absurdist consciousness. Flamboyantly concise and expansively precise, Kelley’s work exuded a commitment to a mission from which few return less damaged than at the start, and make no mistake about it: this society’s post-World War II ideologies ran ramshackle over Kelley’s youthful sensitivities. One piece in particular summed up the traumatic origins of Kelly’s angst. On a wall near the large scale model of his childhood’s institutional indoctrination sites, one could find posted a “Suspected Child Abuse Report,” which the following comments were registered: “Raised by Zombies / Brainwashed by a Cult / Take me back, please.” If the first two comments suggest a prickly revulsion akin to Bob Dylan’s line, “Is there a hole for me to get sick in?” the third comment reveals how difficult it is to escape from the black hole of one’s bleak childhood.

“Educational Complex” was one of the last pieces I encountered as I worked my way through the major retrospective of Kelly’s work at the Geffen Temporary Contemporary, and it remains one of the three or four pieces I would most want to see again. It vibrates in my memory like a massive omphalos of sanitized ideology in which all the personal responsibility for the imposition of egregiously repressive social control has been utterly effaced. No one needs to utter the platitude of “I take full responsibility” because those who benefit the most from this structural edifice have already made their victims the only ones who are permitted to make such a confession.

I wish I had the time to read a few essays on Kelley’s work before posting this entry, but almost immediately after Linda and I viewed this show, I received a call from the Los Angeles Review of Books wanting to know if I would write something about Joseph Hansen and gave me a two-week deadline. I agreed, and that more or less eliminated any chance to go into any more depth on Kelly. As I have thought about his show, though, I have found myself wanting to rearrange the order of the pieces. I would love to have encountered the following sequence: “Abused Child Report”; “Educational Complex”; “Kandor”; the video of Superman reading Plath’s The Bell Jar; “The Greatest Tragedy of President Clinton’s Administration”; and “Pay for Your Pleasure.”

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned L.A. poets who were among Kelley’s earliest admirers.  One I didn’t mention was Bob Flanagan, who went on to become a performer in one of Kelley’s pieces mid-way through this exhibit. As I think about it, in fact, I wonder if Bob Flanagan’s self-portrait as “super-masochist” might possibly have been part of the germination of the “Kandor” project in which Superman’s hometown undergoes a version of whimsical gentrification. I must admit that I was rather enchanted by the scale model that one had to climb a short staircase to view. It was a full of radiant crystals, about two dozen towers in all, on a circular platform. No figures were visible, as if the only life were taking place inside these cathode tubes of utter peacefulness, a kind of mineral chrysalis.

“The Greatest Tragedy of President Clinton’s Administration” proved to be a belated caustis manifesto of sexual rebellion. Kelley’s half-dozen paragraphs choreographed the rhetoric of health with scathing irony. His logic was seething with self-evident obviousness: don’t people see how they’ve been swindled out of their birthright of pleasure? Kelley’s argument moves with a lucid ferocity from health care to sexual health, in which his recommendation is that rock figures should become the sexual servants of those who disempower their own libidos by fixating on the paradigmatic success of others.

“Pay for Your Pleasure” deserved to have a more pungent dialectical rebuke. One also wonders if Kelley at any point ever paused and thought to himself, “Hmmm, all males. In what way does my work differ from the effigies of figures that decorate the upper walls of the Boston Public Library as the fundamental resources of knowledge in Western Civilization?”  I will confess that “Pay for Your Pleasure”  did catch me off –guard with the intensity of a sudden desire to appropriate this piece and to stage it in Texas. In point of fact, what would it have meant for Kelley to have purchased and installed one of George W. Bush’s portrait paintings as the terminal point of this prêt-a-porter philosophical tour.

The video in which Superman reads portion of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was easily one of the most tantalizing parts of the entire exhibit. I would love to be able to use this video in a classroom. It was one of those rare moments when a combination of well-known cultural figures is a perfect blend, and one wonders why no one thoughts of this before. Michael Garvey’s performance of Superman deserves a special commendation.

“Infinite Expansion” (1982, Broad Art Foundation), which Linda saw as having a visual logic of “contraction,” has a chiastic quality of zig-zag overflow, as if it were an image of a fountain of rippling temporality. It served as a rare moment of respite in Kelley’s retrospective. Perhaps I am misreading this piece, but for once Kelley might have found a way out of duplicity of social manipulation and achieved a glimpse at a logic that frees the spirit rather than demolishing it under the pretence of human progress.

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