- Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, ProposalsBy Mike Kelley
- Foul Perfection: Essays and CriticismsBy Mike Kelley
- Mike Kelley: Interviews, Conversations, and Chit-ChatOur PickBy John Welchman, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Tony Oursler, Jim Shaw
Important Art by Mike Kelley
Kelley's first solo video work, The Banana Man, depicts the artist performing in the guise of the eponymous "Banana Man", a minor character from the popular children's television show Captain Kangaroo. While the show was familiar to Kelley from his youth, he had never himself witnessed the Banana Man on screen. Instead, what he described as his "attempt to construct a psychology of the Banana Man" relied entirely on his memories of childhood friends' descriptions of the character. The resulting "series of scenes" is based on two fragments of childhood "hearsay": that the Banana Man liked to pull long items from his many pockets, including toy trains and strings of hot dogs, and that his only vocalisation was an "oooh" sound that accompanied this repetitive activity. In The Banana Man, Kelley explores the possibilities for suggesting individual character by way of the slightest of cues.
Kelley had created performances while still a graduate student at CalArts, often working in collaboration with fellow students including Tony Oursler and Jim Shaw. Of Kelley's early performances, Oursler has recalled that "you couldn't see him perform without feeling invigorated and confused. You realized you were caught up in a tide-pool of Freudian and Jungian misnomers with a punk overtone to it all - he was chaos and utter brilliance." However, Kelley resisted capturing these early performances on video, since he felt uncomfortable recording events that were intended to be witnessed first-hand.
By contrast, just a few years after his graduation from CalArts, this video recording of The Banana Man deliberately exploits the potential of multimedia editing to sustain the illusion of character. As Kelley explains: "Because of the conventions of editing, video and film tend to normalize fracture. The viewer is expected to jump from one image to the next and experience it as a seamless development. To me, this experience of seamlessness seemed to correspond to the notion of unified character."
Kelley's lack of familiarity with the original Banana Man, and his reliance on distant memories, ensures that, despite a full twenty-eight minutes of edited performance, the figure finally remains little more than an absurd cipher. But this incompletion is also an offering to the viewer to fill in the gaps and to project their own sense of this half-forgotten oddball. For Kelley, "it is up to the viewer to come to terms with what this character is". As such, the open-ended nature of The Banana Man seems to resonate with postmodern notions of its time that are still relevant today, suggesting individual subjectivity as an unfixed tissue of fragments heavily determined by the media and other social structures.
More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid marks the first time that Kelley used stuffed-animal toys as a medium. These objects would go on to become a hallmark of the artist's mature practice, and More Love Hours itself is a significant moment in the emergence of the degraded "junk" aesthetic cultivated in the work of many artists in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, from Jason Rhoades to Rirkrit Tiravanija and Thomas Hirschhorn - the "chaotic arrangement" of the "flea market" that the influential curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud would, in 2002, identify as "the dominant art form of the nineties".
Kelley collected these discarded tokens of childhood devotion from thrift stores, tightly arranging them among assorted crocheted afghans on a large canvas measuring eight by ten feet. Apparently tacked to the wall by two ears of dried corn at the upper right- and left-hand corners, this dense assemblage of soiled objects foreshadows the similarly crowded compositions of trinkets and tchotchkes of the later Memory Ware series of collages and sculptures that would eventually occupy Kelley in the last decade of his life.
The scale of More Love Hours recalls the heroic, hyper-masculine paintings of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s, while the richly colored, all-over design of the work is reminiscent of Hans Hoffmann's "push-and-pull" paintings of the late 1950s, in a nod to Kelley's undergraduate training as a painter at the University of Michigan. By creating a quasi-abstract image from an accumulation of soft toys and blankets, Kelley pits low culture against high art, and mounts a sly assault on the high-minded aesthetics of 20th-century abstract painting. As art historian Howard Singerman explains, "high art is often a target in Kelley's work; he mistrusts particularly abstraction's claim to (at once) universal speech and pregnant silence... he refuses to acknowledge the line between high and low art."
More Love Hours's deflation of the ideals of high modernism is of a piece with its more general aura of emotional and spiritual disillusionment. The work's title also suggests wasted effort as a theme, whether this be the futile emotional labour of unrequited love, or the many long hours of stitching that were once required to create the toys and blankets themselves. More Love Hours was first exhibited at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles with a companion sculpture, The Wages of Sin, an assembled shrine of homemade candles set atop a table and placed to the left of the wall hanging. Together with the (autobiographical) Catholic overtones of its companion piece, Kelley's work connotes themes of devotion, guilt, longing and debt that are left unspecified, but which nevertheless seem tinged with nostalgia for the lost innocence of childhood, while pointing with a bitter humor to the failures and disenchantments of adulthood.
Pay for Your Pleasure has become one of Kelley's most celebrated works. The installation consists of a long corridor flanked on both sides by 42 large, colorful poster-like paintings depicting celebrated male poets, philosophers, and artists, with a quotation attributed to each individual above their portrait. Painted by commerical artists from photographs, the panels are reminiscent of the inspirational posters hanging in high school English classrooms across America. However, in Kelley's work, each quotation champions artistic genius as inherently rebellious and above the law. Oscar Wilde, for instance, is accompanied by his bold, art-for-art's-sake assertion that "the fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose."
Kelley's installation is now permanently housed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In its early days, however, it toured to different venues, the corridor ending at each iteration with the inclusion of an artwork created by a notorious local criminal. For the work's Chicago debut, viewers were thus greeted with a disturbing self-portrait by the Cook County serial killer John Wayne Gacy, dressed as his alter-ego, Pogo the Clown. Kelley finally placed donation boxes at the beginning and end of his corridor installation, allowing visitors to donate money to local charitable organizations assisting the victims of violent crimes. As the art critic Christopher Knight explains, "you're bluntly reminded to pay for your voyeuristic pleasure, as you sidle up to peruse the killer's aesthetic product. Like old-fashioned religious indulgences, the contribution boxes let you relieve your gnawing cultural guilt."
Pay for your Pleasure is mockingly site-specific, and like much of Kelley's work, it trains its sights on the viewer's discomfort, seeking to expose the contradictions and hypocrisies that lie at the heart of society and its conventions, including our expectations of art itself. Here, as Knight further explains, "Kelley's provocative installation gaily throws a monkey wrench into all sorts of entrenched assumptions about art. One is the romantic faith in art's value as a universal gauge of personal authenticity and worth. Another is the blandly sentimental assumption that art's highest purpose is to be redemptive."
Influences and Connections
- Mark Grotjahn
- Sterling Ruby
- Liam Gillick
- Paul McCarthy
- Tony Oursler
- Raymond Pettibon
- Installation Art
- Abject art