Mike Kelley at MOCA

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The long awaited retrospective of Mike Kelley, an artist of out-sized talents, opens to members on Sunday and the public on March 31. Sadly, it has become commonplace to mention his suicide at age 57 in the same sentence that describes his abundant accomplishments and influence. Nonetheless, this exhibition, organized by his friend Ann Goldstein for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam where she was then director, can scarcely be seen here, in the city where he had so much personal history, without thinking of the word memorial.

Kelley was so skeptical, so critical of sentimentality that he would probably be appalled but his viewers, at least this one, are not necessarily so built. The show reveals an artist of such immense complexity and originality that it might not be out of line to use the g-word, genius.


"Animal Self and Friend of the Animals" 1987
Photo by Helene Toresdotter, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts


I saw the show at MOMA's PS 1 in Queens where it was widely praised. The fact that various aspects of his work were shown in what had once been classrooms -- the building was converted from a school -- reinforced one recurring aspect of his art, distrust of education. However, the show was arrayed on three floors and divided into many distinct bodies of work.


"John Glenn menorial Detroit River Reclamation Project
(Including the Local Culture Pictorial Guide, 1968-1972, Wayne Westland Eagle), 2001
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts


Installed by Goldstein and curator Bennett Simpson at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, recently outfitted with climate control and obviously spruced up after clearing away the left-over mud and clay from the previous Urs Fischer exhibition, Kelley's work resonates much more comprehensibly as a gesamkunstwerk, a totality of rather astonishing consistency ranging from his earliest bird house sculptures and performance artifacts of the late 1970's, still a graduate student at Cal Arts, to the terrifying beauty of the Kandors, small city models of the birthplace of Superman contained within glass bell jars attached by hoses to tanks of oxygen. Many of these were shown at Gagosian Beverly Hills in 2011, a year before he died, and now look even more like models of isolation and alienation. (Fortress of Solitude!) Kelley was fascinated by the fact that different cartoonists drawing the series over the years had rendered them differently. Small aesthetic factoid? Absolutely but the show proves that Kelley's art as a whole was based on the accretion of countless small details that would escape the attention of most of us.


"More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid" and "The Wages of Sin," 1987
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts


From the Day is Done videos and sculptures installed at the entrance to the show to the gallery containing many of his installations or sculptures composed of stuffed animals, afghans, and felt banners to the life-size re-creation of the wishing well in Chinatown, the scrupulous attention to detail proves that nothing was left to chance. Despite seemingly random and chaotic first impressions, Kelley's art was carefully considered and compulsively ordered. And that is somehow clarified in this particular presentation.


"Silver Ball," 1994
Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Partial and promised gift of Blake Byrne
Photo by Brian Forrest, courtesy of MOCA and the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts


Some 20 pieces have been added to the show at MOCA and the entire Geffen has been given over to the show so there is enough space to enjoy each body of work. It may be something of a memorial but what an extraordinary artist to be remembering.

"Framed and Frame" (Miniture Reproduction "Chinatown Wishing Well" built by
Mike Kelley after "Miniature Reproduction' Seven Star Cavern' built fo Prof H.K. Lu), 1999 (detail)
Rennie Collection, Vancouver

While we are looking back at the life and work of Mike Kelley, we will also be looking forward to the future of MOCA, the first museum to have purchased his work, the museum that presented Helter Skelter, the show organized by then-curator Paul Schimmel that did so much to further Kelley's international career. This new improved MOCA, with Philippe Vergne as director, has a little money in the bank and a home-run hit of an exhibition. The well known artists who had resigned from the board in protest have mostly returned. And this Saturday night's MOCA Gala, chaired by heavy hitters Maurice Marciano, Lilly Tartikoff Karatz and Eli Broad, has almost sold out with tickets at $2500 per person. If you want to be a part of this special evening, I'm told there are some tickets left for purchase. If you can't make that commitment but want to show your support for MOCA's turnaround and Mike Kelley, you can do what I did. Join the museum. Memberships start at $85 and even new members can attend the exhibition this Sunday when there are a number of performances including Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon with Jutta Koethere.

For more information, go to moca.org.

Banner image: Mike Kelley's Kandor 188, 2010 (detail); Collection of Maurice Marciano