Mike Kelley’s untimely death sent a shockwave throughout the art world. It seemed unthinkable that L.A.’s subversive “bad boy” artist was gone. Within two weeks of his death, MOCA L.A. organized a special tribute exhibition celebrating Kelley’s work. Knowing how far in advance museums plan exhibitions, this is nothing short of miraculous.
The 23 exhibited works are all part of MOCA’s collection and represent the diversity of Kelley’s practice spanning works on paper, sculpture, installations and performances. The exhibit also includes six works from Kelley’s own art collection donated to the museum. One particular work kept nagging at me. Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology (2nd and3rd Remove) #3 and #7 (1990) consists of two stuffed “dolls” (creatures) encased in black boxes displayed on the floor. Propped against the wall are two black and white paintings of the stuffed objects. Trapped, the creatures remain forever enshrined in their black tombs, yet Kelley has liberated their spirits through his distorted caricatures.
Another installation features two dirty cat blankets, litter boxes, food dishes and toys–all the accoutrements, sans the cat. Despite the domestic banality and familiarity of these objects, Kelley’s work exudes both tension and despondency. Roped off, the scene transforms into a memorial shrine.
The works from Kelley’s personal collection provide another perspective to the artist’s aesthetic sensibility. Marnie Weber’s life-size bear sculpture wearing a red riding hood cape and John Altoon’s pastel drawing of two girls exposing their genitals to the viewer reinforce the notion of fetishistic desire inherent in many of Kelley’s own works.
In thinking about Kelley’s contribution to contemporary art, but also to art education (he taught at the Art Center College of Design), it is a mistake to reduce his work to the abject. Although many of his well-known works have lewd overtones, his work also poignantly speaks about loss. Kelley’s work makes us flinch, because it takes us to the dark side, exposing our deepest fears and dirty desires.
In Barry Lopez’ book Resistance, he says, “We will disrupt through witness, remembrance and the courtship of the imagination.” Kelley’s work forces us to witness humanity’s depravity. His objects serve to remind us of what we wish to forget. In Kelley’s world of monsters and madness, we yearn for a glimmer of redemption, which never arrives. Yet his imagination and unique vision will continue to live on in his work.
Tribute to Mike Kelley
February 18–April 2, 2012
Multi-media artist Colette Copeland recently relocated to Dallas from Philadelphia. She writes for Afterimage—Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism and Ceramics: Art and Perception Magazine. Her work can be found at www.colettecopeland.com.
also by Colette Copeland
- In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists - April 25th, 2012
- CAA Part II: Design, Food, Weegee and Naked Hollywood - March 9th, 2012
- CAA Part I: Conference Highlights - March 3rd, 2012