Mike Kelley, Works from the Kandor series, 2011
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Show runs 15 December 2012 – 1 April 2013
American artist Mike Kelley is by no means a newcomer to the field of contemporary art. He was widely regarded as one of the most important artists in field until his untimely death in 2012. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum hosts the largest collection of Kelley’s work ever assembled from the 15th of December until the 1st of April 2013. Stedelijk director Ann Goldstein takes an ambitious approach to the eccentric world of Kelley. The lower Abn. Amro Gallery displays Kelley’s earlier works (1970-2003). The broad impression is an aesthetic and emotional rollercoaster that plunges the viewer deep into the psyche of the artist. Works range from collaged/manipulated/mutilated stuffed animals that echo deep pangs of emotional abuse, to tongue and cheek birdhouses that innocently dabble with the winged creatures literary connection to the soul. The basement exhibition plays out in a Jungian plunge into the subconscious, tracing roots of Kelley’s early performances and even scale models of every educational institution that he studied in. Yet as Kelley opens the void of repressed memories and emotional turmoil he manages to keep both hands on the safety lines, offering humorous billboard styled paintings and light hearted brick-a-brack assemblage as skylights to a brighter perspective.
Mike Kelley, Lumpenprole, 1991
Viewers are lead to an accent via an ultra-modern escalator, a physical and mental journey where in the end the guests are confronted video works, banners, as well as highly graphical animations that scream and tremble ad infinitum. The upper Vandenende Gallery showcases Kelley’s later works (2004-2012) and reads as a portrait of a mature and considered artist. The works on the upper floors reveal Kelley as an artist that has the tendency to veer into mundane obsessions. The “Kandors” series recreate the birth-planet of comic book icon Superman, and seep compulsive sentiments of endless chat-room ruminations. The upper gallery continues Kelley’s preoccupation with childhood, but with a keen, almost Freudian perspective. As the world around him changed Kelley did as well. “Trauma Rooms” features a modernist installation counterbalanced with YouTube snippets of horrifying (and at times hilarious) childhood experiences. Mediums may have changed, but Kelley seemed to stay the same.
Mike Kelley, Untitled, 1989
One is left with a bittersweet taste – yet veering towards the sweeter side – after immersing oneself in the world of Mike Kelley. Kelley comes off as troubled, but not disturbed. Breaking down, but not in a state of psychosis. The sheer force of information resonates long after leaving the museum, as well as the careful touch that Kelley imbued in all of his works. He veers as far as possible into the realm of Art Brut, and at the last moments pulling out of a folk-art tailspin into the gilded halls of the modern masters. Even his simple arrangements hint at some sort of grand blueprint, like trails of breadcrumbs strewn across a schizoid forest tempting the viewer to veer off into cryptic paths. Kelly somehow managed to separate a red line from an immense pop-art static hiss. (He has, to some extent, Goldstein to thank for translating his whispers and screams into a coherent prose).
Mike Kelley, Memory Ware flat 49, 2001
One could criticize the role of an institution in respect to the atmosphere of Kelly’s works. Perhaps the viewer merely skates the lunatic fringe, a touristic visit into intensity where it’s a bit too easy to cover ones eyes and shrug off the sentiments that very well may have lead to his tragic demise. For Mike Kelley, art and life were truly married, and like any union this relationship had its fair share of tribulations. Are we orientalists casually enjoying the spoils of a burden far too heavy to bear? It’s a difficult question to answer. What one can say is that the Stedelijk, under the direction of Ann Goldstein, manages to collect an astounding quantity of Kelley’s prolific career, and deserves due thanks for illuminating one of the fields most exceptional individuals.
(Adam Grinovich, www.adamgrinovich.com)