Mike Kelley Retrospective, PS1, November 2013, New York, NY
Mike Kelly’s retrospective at PS1 went up about a year after his death. There was a lot of his work up in New York that fall, a lot of press and talk. It was also the year that 5 Pointz was white-washed by the owner of the building. Before I entered PS1, I walked the museum of 5 Pointz, taking hundreds of pictures of the white-washed graffiti.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways we prepare ourselves to receive art, and how what comes before can have an impact on receptivity to new ideas and the nuances that make a piece of art memorable, important, or interesting. 5 Pointz set the tone for me, a kind of messy reverence that I brought into this show.
I’m not sure, but I think it was my first visit to PS1, and I was delighted by the way the train skirted over the top of it, it felt like if I put my head too far out the window I would land in the museum’s courtyard.
Publicity for the show was all about the room full of suspended stuffed animals. I’d planned to fly in and out of that room, and head off in search of something more interesting. But that room surprised me in the way that food can surprise you. It was the kind of meal that with each bite you take, you look at your fork again, wondering how it’s doing what it’s doing. There was something about being in that physical space that reminded me of my aliveness. I was aware of the relationship of my body to those vivid colors and soft textures. I felt awake, and I appreciated that wakefulness.
I took in the show after a long day of work, and I rushed there because I knew that I couldn’t miss it. As I rode the train in, I was tired in my bones. I also felt more comfortable than usual, because I ran into my friend Tim and his daughter at the show. We moved through the show at different paces, occasionally crossing paths and pointing out an easy-to-miss room or piece.
And how perfect that PS1 used to be a school
And a school from times that were so cinematic and so much a part of my youth. I wonder how someone who didn’t grow up with creaky windows and overpainted door frames, the ghosts of manual pencil sharpeners feels in a space like PS1. Kelley’s work seemed to understand. His large graphic textiles felt simultaneously out of place and at home in there.
I couldn’t spend enough time in that room, and the one next door, full of Educational Complex, Mike Kelley’s single composite model of his old schools. Their craft was so precise. I’ve always been into miniatures and architectural models. I know the pain of an Exacto knife that’s been in my hand for too long, the repetition that goes into the tiny trees and perfect stairways. I had an architect for a roommate in college, and I used to help her with projects around finals time. Her bedtime was when she got too sleepy to use a box cutter. That’s one thread of Kelley’s work for me, the way that it lends itself to reverie and nostalgia.
Another room that I can still see in my mind is a narrow corridor of portraits almost ceiling-high, each with a face in bright monochromatic color and a handwritten literary quote. The quick oil on Tyvek technique and the way that the paper crinkled with washes of paint made me wonder if he’d painted them with tempera. Pay For Your Pleasure hovered between ambitious high school projects and fine art and were engaging because they rode that edge.
But the reason the show still resonates with me is the layers of surprise. Before that retrospective, I’d always liked and respected Kelly’s work, but I didn’t care about it. The first spot I hit in this exhibition was the dome, featuring a seemingly endless run of time-based work. Some of it was in collaboration with Paul McCarthy, who I’ve always found funny but exhausting. The videos were well done, and I expected them. Looking back I didn’t take pictures of the work I remember or the work I loved. I took photos of the work that surprised me.
I needed that combination of calm and alert, because this exhibition was huge. It wasn’t an afterthought of a retrospective or one so tightly curated that you see the lens of the curator just as much as you see the artist.
This show was an explosion of Mike Kelley
It was a dark celebration of his force of personality, his greatest hits and his quiet meanderings. It somehow activated many pieces that I’d seen in reproductions or group shows before with a shrug. In this show, the work did what the critics said it did. This show was like seeing a classic car on the street instead of in a garage. It was a parade of experience.
The power of permission was tangible. Mike Kelly wasn’t a slave to what he did well. He drove with his curiosity and spared no time or effort in pushing his explorations to a place of madness, discomfort, and radiance.
As I walked out of that show, there was a light mist of rain. I felt overly full, exhausted, and beautifully spent.