Kelly is a handful. This exhaustive, and exhausting memorial compendium is akin to an art world colonoscopy. And like the medical procedure, this exhibit examines and purges pop culture dregs inhabiting the art market’s intestinal tract.
Kelly’s unimpeded libido meanders about pretty much aimlessly; indulging in darkly brooding mediations on repressed memory and trauma, then tossing in dumb trivialities like fake vomit and comic book covers.
Was he an artist without any discernable boundaries, a dysfunctional wild child who was never told ‘no’, exorcising his tantrums and demons? Or was it all an act? From the Kelly Crow article in the WSJ:
“Stuffed animals? Minutes later, a local reporter approached George (Mike Kelly’s older brother) and asked if his little brother had ever been sexually abused. George nearly threw a punch. Their parents were strict and so were the nuns at school, but he knew of no such trauma. George told his brother what had happened. He also apologized for chuckling at first glance. Kelley slapped him on the back: "Good, it's supposed to be funny."
From then on, the art world demanded autobiography from Kelley. Rather than quell the scrutiny, he stepped fully into the role of provocateur—toying with critics and waffling continually between memory and myth in his life. In an essay first published in Architecture New York in 1996, Kelley wrote, "I had to abandon working with stuffed animals for this reason. There was simply nothing I could do to counter the pervasive psycho-autobiographic interpretation of these materials. I decided, instead, to embrace the social role projected on me, to become what people wanted me to become: a victim."
A cynical take on Kelly could be that he was corrupted by big art largess, and ended up producing shock value schlock to generate big returns in the inflated bubble era.
He came from a working middle-class family in Detroit MI. After attending U of M at Ann Arbor, he got involved in the local heavy-metal punk scene. Kelly then managed to get into CalArts, honing his conceptually punked-out performance bad boy persona enough to get noticed by museum bigwig Richard Armstrong, who purchased a piece out of his senior show.
Maybe it would have helped if he’d been in NY. It seems incongruous that such an amped-up, up and coming art star would settle in mellow LA, home of alfalfa sprout and avocado sandwiches. Perhaps the nitty-gritty nastiness of the East Village would have better suited his tumultuous process.
But once you get past all the ranting, raving, and screaming Mimi’s there may be still enough work of substance in this show to sustain the image of a tortured genius, yet I believe there is also room for reasonable doubt.
The large-scale installation Kandors is a silly, ill-conceived (and probably over-budget in typical Hollywood style) rock opera take on Superman’s home planet which most likely ended up padding the pockets of DC comics, while picking the pockets of free-spending, big shot collectors who didn’t know any better.
|Remove your shoes?! Please...|
Kelly’s multi-plexed and perplexing video installation, Day Is Done, personifies all that is bothersome about the overwrought, over-stimulated, and under-edited film loop mania saturating up-scale gallery spaces. Particularly amateurish is the oft-repeated scene featuring a trio of slinky leotard-clad mime ‘dancers’, prancing and gyrating about high school hallways for no particular reason other than to flaunt cheerleader sex appeal. They could just as well be selling used cars.
On the flip side there are the inspired stuffed-animal assemblages, his most popular work made early on in his career. Cast-off toys, sewn together in messy clumps, they combine a painterly palette with sculptural mass. Seen in the installation, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, they brilliantly bridge the pop/conceptual divide. These inventive pieces encapsulate a visual playfulness within an autobiographical context, springing from the artist’s youthful fascination with sewing and textiles.
Although the hung-from-the-ceiling aesthetic might now seem quaint, this was an innovative concept in the day, and succinctly suits the interaction of viewer and art object.
Kelly’s written screeds document his angst filled, dream-like visions, and are compiled in an unhinged, Burrows-esque sketchbook diary format. His visceral prose lends credibility to the overall context of his oeuvre. He would have fit in well with the Beats, and their anarchic archetype.
Despite all the distractions, on occasion he managed to settle down and harness his deft comic book illustration influenced draftsmanship abilities. Particularly engaging are the two grey tinted night landscapes. Depicting dreamy quietude, they seem an all too brief respite from the cacophony.
Kelly’s inclination towards poster art and larger scale silkscreen make good use of his blunt didactics. Text and graphics interface effectively in the tradition of 60’s political protest with a hint of psychedelic.
His decorative skills are diligently employed in the Memory Ware group. Glitteringly dense, these wall panels transcend the folk tradition from which they emerged. The picture plane could almost have been poured in, but notions of formal abstraction permeate subliminal configurations.
Black Out is a well-intended homage to the artist’s hometown of Detroit. However, clunky execution of the clumsy looking astronaut dilutes most of the pathos. Still, the use of Detroit River detritus is a clever conceit. The most successful section appears as a to-scale, flyover view of urban glass towers.
This was as close as I came to appreciating Kelly’s architectural modeling efforts. All the foam core cutouts struck me as ill-advised attempts at seeming relevant to minimalist architectural doctrine. I’m assuming none of them were actually made hands-on by Kelly, and even if they were, the whole idea comes off as pandering to some kind of suave urban planning ideology that doesn’t seem to coincide with the artists inherently irreverent intellect.
Kelly’s over reliance on appropriated imagery comes off as dated. Its one thing to create a montage/collage effect that resonates with irony, but when it’s continually glommed on as a shortcut to meaningful content it quickly becomes tiresome.
Without access to all of Gagosian’s wheelbarrows of gold, perhaps he would have had to become more economical and efficient. Kelly was certainly proficient and prolific, which I think is key to his experimental prowess. However like most artists he was in dire need of an editor. I suspect he rarely heard criticism.
Kelly may very well have been a victim, but mostly of his own success. When fashion rules the roost, slavery is not far behind.