After traveling from Amsterdam to Paris and New York, “Mike Kelley” has finally come home to MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary and MOCA Grand Avenue. Perhaps best known for the cover of the Sonic Youth album, Dirty, Mike Kelley could be described as LA’s quintessential post-punk artist. Until his recent death in 2012, he created a huge body of work exploring such diverse topics as politics, class, gender, pop culture, and the traumas of childhood, with a special interest in recovered memories.
If you can name a medium, Kelley worked in it, from watercolor to wood, from mosaic to installations, from photography to video. He was particularly entranced with texture, creating dioramas with anything from plastic sprinkles to quartz. Although his performances can never truly be recreated, there are videos of some of the pieces. One of Mike Kelley’s favorite mediums was found objects, particularly soft sculpture using crochet and stuffed animals. Although his work is often whimsical, there is a dark underbelly. What are the mysterious lumps beneath the large, seemingly cozy afghan? The artist’s collection of discarded stuffed animals certainly lean towards the creepy, with leering eyes and ominous smiles.
Some pieces are inexplicably sad and lonely. One installation contained cat dishes and litter boxes, everything you need for a pet, making the absence of a pet palpable. There was a cardboard box; maybe it was full of kittens. I certainly hope somebody checked.
One of the more disturbing pieces is “Horizontal Tracking Shots,” a video tryptich of moments gleaned from YouTube of children being bullied and mocked. They cry out with genuine distress and fear as older children laugh and even adults tease, “Look, he is crying like a little girl.” It echoes Kelley’s film in “Day is Done” where a child is terrorized by a laughing, taunting barber.
Another less obvious and recognizably “Mike Kelley” series is a collection of gorgeous watercolor portraits of eminent writers, poets and philosophers such as Degas, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, and Herman Hesse along with their memorable and often nihilistic quotes comparing art to violence, insanity and crime. The installation, “Pay for Your Pleasure” originally included a donation box for victims of crimes and an artwork by a convicted criminal.
As a retrospective, the exhibition is remarkably complete, including over 250 works spanning almost three decades. Some of the works appear to almost be student projects, and perhaps they were. Here is a Venn diagram of “me,” here is a cubist painting, and here is a study in wood. Many of the watercolors combine image and text, seemingly informed by or informing Raymond Pettibon. The larger pieces, like “Kandors” resembled science experiments studying gases or light, or what an artist does with a large commission. In general, the pieces were often puzzling, with obscure meanings requiring some explanation.
I left the gallery feeling as though I would have to slog through a huge tome or perhaps take a class to truly understand Mike Kelley. Luckily, MOCA is providing just that. Not only are encyclopedic books for sale, they are offering three months of events related to the exhibit. Thursday, April 17, Curator Bennett Simpson “discusses themes and key works in Mike Kelley, underscoring the artist’s importance to MOCA over the course of the museum’s history.” The exhibit continues through July 28 2014.