The Permission of Mike Kelley, by Karl Erickson

The recent traveling retrospective exhibition of Mike Kelley reveals the artist’s artwork to be generous, permissive, moral and caring; though not kind, gentle nor easy. There also exists in equal measures cynicism, cruelty and negativity. Caring, in that he strove to ruthlessly expose systems of repression in our lives; unkind, in that his withering attack left few beliefs unexposed, and no sacred goats left unshorn. This permission and generosity can be experienced in three overlapping ways: 1) Mike Kelley provides an example of how to make intelligent, critically engaged work. This provides permission to artists to wholly invest in their subject matter; 2) Kelley’s drive to over-stuff his subjects with meaning to the bursting point. This is an act of generosity to the subject while damning our culture of over-analysis; and 3) Kelley’s work is generous in the sense that he served, as the well-known image of him documents, as a janitor, an astringent force working elbows deep in the pus and bile of mass culture to clear out blockages.

When I first encountered Kelley’s work in the mid-1990s, l was a young artist living and attending undergrad in Detroit. I had never seen anything like his combinations of images, materials and texts. His art was a revelation that serious, smart, complex work could be made of and from the subjects he worked with: pop culture detritus, weirdos, noise, shit. To a 19-year old in the Midwest, this was mind-blowing; and a very long way from Van Gogh and Warhol. Sure, there was plenty of conceptual and pop art available, but not like this delirious assemblage. Conceptual Art, as represented by Joseph Kosuth and Adrian Piper, was dry and chastising. Pop Art, even at its best, seemed to be about dumbing art down, glorifying the banal, rather than critically engaging the banal. Next to Kelley, Warhol, Haring and Rauschenberg looked tame, clean, and subservient. Kelley’s imagery of dirty stuffed animals, engorged monkey butts, Abraham Lincoln et al. and the secret meanings teased out through twisted connections and digressions was, and is, emancipating. His example served as permission granted to create art that reveled in complexity and layers, that could be funny, cruel and expansive.

Kelley’s career track was likewise enabling for a young Midwest artist like myself: his coming out of Detroit to CalArts and Los Angeles was proof that it could be done. Likewise, his continued and increasing embrace of Detroit as his origin and subject matter is gratifying. Unlike artists of earlier generations (like Ed Ruscha, who had to cast off his Oklahoma upbringing to certify his mythology as an LA artist), Kelley embraced his Detroit heritage. He didn’t leave his baggage behind, he dragged it with him. Works like Meditation on a Can of Vernors, Black Out, and John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (Including the Pictorial Guide, 1968-1972, Wayne/Westland Eagle, don’t glorify Detroit, but do make a strong case for the impact that local history and culture has on an individual’s psyche to be worthy subjects of intense scrutiny. This is increasingly important as art becomes more globalized and generic. Kelley never idealized his origin, not by a long shot, but there is an obvious pride in the funk and weirdness from which he came. For an artist in Los Angeles, a city about re-invention and pristine youth, Kelley’s choice to dwell in his aboriginal soup is another powerful example of his subversive disposition.

Kelley’s ongoing defense of the separation between art and entertainment, and his railing against monolithic culture is empowering for anyone who defines themselves as an artist. Interviews such as with John Welchman at  the  Walker Art Center in 2005 (1) and with Gary Fialka (2) in 2004 demonstrate Kelley to be passionately defending the possibilities for the avant-garde and the role of art as a mode of critical engagement. For Kelley, art was far more than entertainment and eye-candy. Kelley endorsed being an artist as a way of being a reject, an outsider. That he got so much pleasure from creating his absurdities is not lost either, as he can be heard to laugh first and loudest in the Welchman interview as he viewed his own Day is Done clips.

When thinking about the content of Mike Kelley’s art, it is important to keep in mind what is the actual subject. Kelley’s subject is not CalArts, weirdo hot rod culture, nor is it stuffed animals. Rather, his subjects are deviance and repression. The particulars are just the vessels in which deviance and repression are expressed. The way he worked with these forms reveals another form of generosity. Kelley raised up deviance as something worth studying, even celebrating, but his work was rarely deviant for deviance’ sake. As John Miller wrote about Kelley’s relationship to populist culture “Kelley’s work…casts its lot with the working class, but refuses to historicize that that class.” (3) The same is true of Kelley’s relationship to underground cultures: clearly he is on their side, but his work focuses on what shapes someone to seek, or be forced into, outsider status.

Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1 (A Domestic Scene) is a potent example of this. Like all of the EARP works, #1 takes its leaping-off point from a high school yearbook photo, most likely of a school play such as Odd Couple. From that thin slice Kelley built a narrative along the lines of a 1950s half hour TV drama. Packed into the scene are layers of “anti-normative behaviour” such as squalor, homosexuality, art making, and poetry. In the video, Kelley alternates between pity for the characters for being cornered into these behaviours, vilifying them for choosing their actions, and heroizing the characters as rebels against conformity. The installation at PS1 in Queens, New york intensifies the feeling of aberrant behavior by placing EARP #1 into a small gallery off of a stairwell, somewhat hiding it. Compare this with Kelley’s Rose Hobart II, installed a few floors up, in which viewers must crawl through a black minimalist-esque sculpture (modeled after Thomas Edison’s film studio) to peer through a peephole to see the shower scene from the 1982 film Porky’s (with the soundtrack replaced with Morton Subotnik’s The Wild Bull). The artwork is a way of queering an institutionally sanctioned form of deviancy – the very soft-core teen porn comedy. The boys become the object of the audience’s gaze. In this, Kelley calls to task a culture that uses/needs such fare to release sexual tensions (what is it that is being repressed in “us” that we need to watch teenage boys peep at teenage girls showering – to say nothing of the expression of castration anxiety!) while he heightens the deviant qualities by making the viewer crawl through darkness to watch the video and hear a stress-inducing soundtrack. Suddenly, Porky’s is not an inoffensive low-culture lark. Instead, it becomes a symptom of a cultural sickness, questioning repressions and blockages.

This is to say, Kelley is giving us a gift in artworks like these: he stuffs objects and subjects with more meaning and information than they can rationally be expected to hold. His insistence that all things have layers upon layers of meaning — intended, subconscious and projected — all comingle into a greasy stew that reveals itself in bubbles that pop and break into the greater culture. This is an act of generosity by Kelley both to the subject matter — it becomes elevated, an object or event worthy of study possessing revelatory powers–as well as generous towards the viewer, as his work rewards the viewer into feeling intelligent, that they are elevated from experiencing the art. Of course, this is where cynicism comes in: the layers of meaning in the subjects are freeform subjective projections from the artist thrust upon them and sometimes the audience are just gullible saps falling for a joke. Nothing directly links Subotnick to Porky’s, or a monkey’s inflamed ass with the rising moon.

Though perhaps it is incorrect to characterize Kelley’s art as a gift. He made abundantly clear his distrust of the idea of art as a gift in his reaction to his early stuffed animal works that became so greatly misinterpreted (and launched his driving interest in repressed memories). Popularized in the 1980s through readings of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, proponents of the idea that art transcended the market and functions more in the realm of the gift economy focus on the generous aspects of this economy and largely ignored the obligations associated. Kelley directly acknowledged this aspect of the gift in More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, calling attention to the duties associated with receiving a “gift;” wanted or not. I believe Kelley took this message to heart, and as full of information his art is, and as empowering of his subjects and audiences he was, Kelley’s work requires a great deal of effort and stamina to absorb and understand. The sheer volume of material and references guarantees that if an audience wants anything besides slight abuse and transgressive titters from Kelley’s work, it will have to spend time with it. This volume, combined with Kelley’s apparent low regard for an audience committed to spending this time, reveal little expectation of return from the audience by Kelley, thereby negating the central obligation component of “the gift.”   Kelley’s work is over-ripe and over-stuffed, like his drawings of sacks and garbage packs, heavy, near bursting and threatening with potential messiness. Kelley’s willingness to combine deliberately aggressive subjects: noise music, excrement, with the seemingly benign: The Banana Man, hand-crafted stuffed toys, high-school extracurricular activities, is a similar mix of the generous and the cynical. This strategy casts the “benign” elements in the unseemly glow of the purposefully deviant, teasing out repressed urges and actions, while the deviant material gains a patina of sweetness and honesty that would be lacking should it appear on its own. Through Rose Hobart II, Edison’s movie studio becomes a tool for producing servile , tepid sleaze, and Porky’s becomes an honest, albeit misplaced expression of sexual and emotional longing. Missing Time Color Exercise #2, featuring the dirty hillbilly joke magazine Sex to Sexty, in which the ribald fun is presented as honest expression of humor and desire in a simple, nearly calm presentation rubs up against the cacophonous Day Is Done which erupts with teenage juices of repression and mis-directed angst. Perhaps even more revelatory is the presentation of Missing Time Color Exercise #2 with the Empathy Displacement works. Missing Time presents the covers of a “dirty” magazine, with color-field paintings of the same dimensions as the magazine filling in for the issues missing from Kelley’s personal collection. For Kelley, the missing issues are analogous to repressed memories. The work is cheerful and colorful, and invites prolonged looking and giggles at the magazine covers (perhaps because the viewer doesn’t have adolescent boys as a surrogates, the experience of looking at the Sex to Sexty covers feels much less “dirty” than watching Porky’s). The Empathy Displacement works feature hand-crafted stuffed animals encased in black boxes on the floor, with small round windows providing a peek at the dolls. Hung above the boxes are large black-on-white acrylic paintings of the toys. It is severely clinical; inviting feelings of pity and suspicion of the stuffed toys. In this way, the deviant Sex to Sexty is elevated and venerable, while the nominally innocent stuffed toys are shown as contaminants packed with guilt.


It is interesting to compare Mike Kelley to another highly influential Los Angeles artist/teacher: Michael Asher. Whereas Kelley’s work and example provided this willingness to relentlessly pack in meaning, Asher’s approach was about control and shutting down avenues: meaning had to be intended or short-circuited. Asher’s instruction and example was that of intention. In my experience, Asher insisted on direct one-to-one relations, and an understanding of the potential reception of all components of an artwork. There existed a sense of purity and the ideal about Asher’s thinking. Kelley’s example, as discussed above, was about overpacking artworks with allusions, metaphors and subjective projections. Lack of control was very much a subject of his art and free association was a primary artistic tool for him. Both Asher and Kelley were voracious intellects who brought their considerable knowledge to bear in the interrogation and analysis of art, and their influence is strongly felt in the artworld.(4) Kelley cast himself in the role of the janitor, mucking about in the filth of mass culture, not to celebrate it or to be a “bad boy,” but to reveal the possibilities of damage to the individual by culture. Kelley could show what made us feel bad, misbegotten and outcast and let us laugh at it. It is the humor that is in Kelley’s work that is our saving grace. To be able to laugh at repressive forces is to recognize those forces, and to begin to deny them power. Kelley’s work is a reminder that rebellion is possible. He is a pressure valve for repressed energies.


Kelley’s laughter, however, is not always, or even often, joyous. It is mocking, and the viewer is just as likely to be caught up in the artist’s belittlement as “the powers that be.” The sneering voice of Kelley reverberated throughout his artwork. Combined with screams, scrapes, moans and drones from various works, his voice issued from videos such as Blind Country, The Banana Man and installations such as the Dialogue #5 (One Hand Clapping), wheedling and accusing. His nasal vocal tone, deliberate or not, stands in for all of the cynical and negative parts of Kelley’s work; telling us that so much is wrong and there is little hope, that gifts are obligations, aesthetic pleasure is misdirected sexual urge, and laughter is mockery. Kelley does not grant permission hope. His was a practice of scorched earth methodology. His destabilizing assault on the repressive forces in our culture left no systems of belief untouched. As an aggressive attack against forces that cajole and misshape the individual’s psyche, Kelley’s art instills distrust in any and every value system. This is especially apparent in works that seem to address utopian thoughts such as A Stopgap Measure from 1999. The triptych consists mostly of text, alongside an appropriated movie poster for The Land Before Time VI, featuring cute frolicking dinosaurs. The first panel of text details a proposal that calls for universal healthcare and ties in mental and physical well being with sexual satisfaction. Sexual frustration is created by celebrity culture that offers up an untouchable “pantheon of fantasy figures of desire.” Release from this frustration would be achieved by having the celebrities, or their willing surrogates, serve as sex workers for the hoi polloi. The celebrities would earn their elevated status and the general public would be able to satiate repressed urges. Kelley’s (tongue-in-cheek?) proposal goes on to note that this is only a temporary step to liberation from sexual repression: once we learn that gratification is available as part of daily living, celebrity culture will no longer be necessary. Kelley acknowledges that this is a long way off, and in the meantime, offers up a “stopgap measure” in the form of inanimate stuffed surrogates, hump toys for the repressed. Funny and devastating yes, hopeful for the future? Not at all. He skewers the idea of solving a social ill even as he proffers a solution.


There are a number of surprises in the retrospective, notably the extensive installation of Kelley’s Kandors project. Experiencing these cities-in-bell-jars in great number linked them to Kelley’s explorations of pathos and absurdity in other works such as Day is Done. Previously the Kandors read more as one-liners, but in the context of the rest of Kelley’s work, their focus on home, unwanted responsibility (baggage), and outsider status was poignant, especially in relation to Mobile Homestead. The exhibition also defined Kelley as an arch-moralist, with a clear sense of the value of the individual over the group. Through his strategies of projection, biography and appropriation, Mike Kelley locates individual subjectivity as the product of culture.  Subjectivity, the role of the artist and the viewpoint of the individual are urged to become outsiders to escape mainstream conscription. He urged pride in deviance and escape from shame. The text from the early felt banner artwork Three Point Program / Four Eyes perhaps states it best: “Pants Shitter & Proud P.S. Jerk-Off Too (And I Wear Glasses).”


  1. Mike Kelley and John Welchman, Walker Art Center, June 2, 2005
  2. 105 Minutes with Mike: Mike Kelley Interviewed by Gerry Fialka, 2004,
  3. John Miller, “The Poet as Janitor,” in Mike Kelley Catholic Tastes ed. Elisabeth Sussman (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993), 149.
  4. Kelley briefly discusses Michael Asher in interview with Eva Meyer-Hermann in the exhibition catalog: “I had a hard time in the beginning at CalArts, particularly with Michael Asher, because he was so staunchly opposed to making reference to mass or popular culture in any way, because his belief was that to do so simply reiterated it. But that’s not the way I felt.” Eva Meyer-Hermann, Interview with Mike Kelley, in Mike Kelley ed. Eva Meyer-Hermann (Delmonico Books-Prestel, 2013) 371-2.

Mike Kelley exhibition at MoMA PS1:

Mike Kelley exhibition at MOCA, where it closes this Saturday, July 28:

Karl Erickson is an artist who focuses on motivational language, transcendental experiences, science-fiction, repetition and counter-cultures. His primary media are video, posters, collage and performance. In 2013 he was an artist in residence at The Arctic Circle and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space Residency on Governor’s Island. Recent exhibitions include Monotonic Surfaces: An Account of the Arctic Regions” at Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture, “Andrew Falkowski and and Karl Erickson: Architecture and Morality” at the Suburban, Oak Park, IL, and “A Study in Midwestern Appropriation” at the Hyde Park Art Center, curated by Michelle Grabner.


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