Mike Kelley, MoMA PS1, New York – review

In a corner of the labyrinthine basement of PS1, deep within the museum’s innards, I come across a video enacting a demented ritual: a naked man in a devil mask whoops and flails on a bridge at night, then disappears. Fire consumes the screen for several minutes. Cut to the foaming surface of a toilet bowl, fed by fitful streams of urine. The bubbles gather like clouds into almost recognisable shapes, then dissolve again into formlessness. Finally, an unseen hand yanks the flusher. But that’s not the end. A piss-eye view tracks the liquid’s trajectory through dark, winding tunnels to nowhere. Is this a sewage system or a digestive tract? Impossible to tell.

The piece encapsulates the gargantuan Mike Kelley retrospective, which snakes through the entire building and takes hours to see. As I climb from floor to floor, traversing its hallucinatory landscape, am I really wandering through a mock-up of the artist’s body and brain? The disorienting dips from madness to lucidity, from inane crudeness to baroquely intellectual affectations – the sheer quantity of stuff! – make it clear that for Kelley, art was a necessary excretion.

Kelley, who killed himself last year at the age of 57, wielded adolescent pop culture like a butter knife that could swiftly turn sharp and dangerous. He collected gross-out comics, high school yearbooks, pornography, old stuffed animals, Superman esoterica, polymorphous scatology, self-help bromides and wave after wave of cultural discharge. Yet he claimed to despise the material he manipulated so lovingly: “I think it’s garbage,” he said. “But that’s the culture we live in and that’s the culture people speak. I’m an avant-gardist. We’re living in the postmodern age, the death of the avant-garde. So all I can really do is work with this dominant culture and flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure, expose it.”

The show trembles with ambivalence. Though he claimed to be debunking what he called “the trauma culture”, there’s something dark, primal and disturbed at the heart of this agonised, superabundant heap of shrieking free association, held together with loopy cords of critical theory. He denied that his art was autobiographical, yet every jot and line leads inevitably back to the vanishing point of his adolescence in a Detroit suburb.

As a boy, he resisted his upbringing in ways calculated to enrage his conservative Catholic father. “He treated me like a sissy so I became a sissy to get revenge,” he explains in the catalogue. The young Kelley sewed dolls, painted his fingernails and grew his hair out long and stringy. The sad thing is that, even as a middle-aged man, he seemed trapped in a feedback loop of teenage rebellion, doggedly intent on payback.

Not that he would ever have admitted such a thing. Kelley ridiculed the quasi-religious belief in repressed memory, yet he kept returning, obsessively and with ever crazier rationalisations, to a boyhood he claimed to have left behind and even partly forgotten. It was never clear whether he remained oblivious to the contradiction or whether he used it to mock those who desperately wanted to figure him out.

His iconic “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” (1987) synthesises all the potency, frustration and brilliance of Kelley at his best. He went back to sewing playthings, like he did as a child, only now he had honed his technique and raised the stakes. He fashioned a tapestry of plush dolls and handmade stuffed animals, lovingly crocheted afghans and potholders, all assembled into a flattened all-over abstract composition with expressionist overtones. Kelley initially claimed that the work was a critical response to the 1980s dialogue about commodity culture, but even a visual illiterate could see that it was really about the pitfalls of unconditional love. The handcrafted toys Kelley found in LA thrift stores represented hours – years, even – of labour, time and care directed at children who had no choice but to receive them. Kelley reads that universal generosity as a perverse mechanism. Parents inflict an unwanted sense of obligation on children who push it away – sometimes literally, by passing handmade heirlooms on to the junk shops where Kelley found them.

Viewers reacted to the piece in a way the artist didn’t predict. They saw in the dirty, mangled and betrayed critters hidden signs of child abuse – specifically Kelly’s own molestation and subsequent repression. He insisted that he had never been assaulted, but he did embrace the role his viewers projected on him: “I decided to become what people wanted me to become: a victim.”

From here on, Kelley played with autobiography like a toddler with a box of explosives. It charged most of his work, especially the room-sized architectural model called “Educational Complex” (1995). That work is a fantastical amalgam of every school Kelley ever went to, along with the house he grew up in – a ghostly white labyrinth of hallways, studios, locker rooms, and lecture halls. Here and there a blank space appears where the artist claimed some terrible event had blotted out his recollection.

He fleshed out the bones of the building with “Day is Done”, a series of video and sculpture installations based on eerie old yearbook photos and episodes from his own life that he re-enacted. He originally planned 365 scenes but only completed 32, which is more than enough for me. They roil across screens hanging from the ceiling of a giant gallery. A Christmas pageant, a Halloween party, a lurid dance recital, a frighteningly sexual visit to the barbershop – these vignettes all scream for attention in a nightmarish panorama of American adolescence. Kelley didn’t believe in God, but he worshipped ritual, and this pathological burlesque rises, at moments, to the intensity of a passion play.

At PS1, Kelley’s phobias, anxieties, enthusiasms and ecstatic joylessness mingle in an emotional miasma that permeates the museum. All the leering faces and barbarous music make me queasy and claustrophobic. Still, I march on. This relentless show never allows disgust to dissipate, but it draws me in and refuses to let me go.

Until February 2, momaps1.org

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