NEW YORK - It must have been tough being Mike Kelley (1957–2012). The massive, rock-your-world exhibition of his work now at MoMA PS1 through February 2 is like stepping inside the late artist’s head, and it’s not pretty in there. But the clever, tortured soul produced some great art.
The show, sure to be the definitive one of the artist’s work, takes over every inch of PS1 (it’s the biggest show there since 1976). I found myself disoriented in the extreme, wandering from room to room as his ideas ricocheted off the walls and each other. It’s a lot of show.
Mike Kelley’s Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. 1991/1999.
Kelley’s project was to examine repression and the surfaces that cover up childhood trauma. He worked in every medium he could get his hands on. He created mosaics of pottery found at the bottom of a river; he made weird, shrill, funny videos; he painted, drew and collaged; he sewed together stuffed animals in big, creepy bundles.
That last project is what brought him fame early on and I actually think his work with “soft goods” of all kinds is among his strongest, because it made us see an entire texture family in a new way. To me, the quintessential Kelley work is Lumpenprole, 1991, a large, intricate carpet laid over some ominous looking lumps. It’s extremely suggestive but doesn’t say too much, and hence stays with you.
Installation view of Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photo: Matthew Septimus.
Whatever your formal taste in art, you’ll probably find something to connect with in this show, since Kelley tried everything. Lots of people, including me, are wowed by his Kandor series, in which he produced beautiful, shiny and rather cold sculptures in glass that represent a very personal and skewed version of Superman’s hometown, but locked away in a jar. Kelley then connected this to Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar – something that seems poignant now, given that he appears to have killed himself, as Plath did.
The ultimate compliment I can give this show is that I need to go back, because I don’t feel I was able to get it all in one visit.