mike kelley | Notes on Looking

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...