Skip to content

It has been said of the philosopher Georges Bataille that writing occupies two spheres. The modernist Bataille maintains a belief in the redemptive and transcendent value of orgies, animal and human sacrifice, consumption, and excess in all its transgressive forms, that transgression is the limitless conclusion to an already established historical trajectory. The postmodernist Bataille begins to question this idea, and likewise the viability of a timeline as at all useful in understanding historical events. Likewise, there are two Mike Kelleys. The modernist Mike Kelley maintains a relationship to an institutional history of painting, building on its history through the time-honored traditions of influence and patricide. The postmodernist Kelley’s interests lie elsewhere, outside this institutional history, in the particularities and obscure iconologies of mass culture with their myriad signs and signifiers of allegiance and dissent. Much has been written of the latter Mike Kelley and his work, both by the artist and by many writers much more esteemed then I am. So for this essay I am forgoing a discussion of Kelley’s work as it relates to notions of the apathetic and the abject, it’s Freudian connotations, its unique relationship to systems of production and distribution, and many other of its postmodern aspects that deserve - and have received - a thorough study. Instead, I would like to focus on modernist Kelley’s relationship to two more or less canonized institutions of thought. The Duchampian readymade and ideas of appropriation. 

Kelley has referred to the visual aspects of his objects as their "socialized veneer": a kind of trap with which to lure viewers in, so that they might begin to contemplate the aesthetic and linguistic puzzles that make up each work. These puzzles are rarely ambigu­ous and usually lead to a solution Kelley has planned out well in advance. Much like the case of the Duchamp readymade, it is not the solution to the riddle that gives the work its meanings. Figuring out these meanings is a kind of preparatory exercise that Kelley leads us through so that we might be able to draw on the implica­tions of them, which are manifold. This is where the unspoken poet­ics of Kelley's work resides. As Ludwig Wittgenstein states at the end of his uncompromisingly didactic and mathematical Tractatus logico-philosophicus, "What cannot be spoken of must be passed over in silence." Duchamp's riddles are cryptic. Why a snow shovel? Why a bot­tle rack? Questions like these go unanswered in Duchamp's work. It is the idea of the readymade that constitutes Duchamp's legacy. By comparison, the readymades themselves are merely a curiosity. They are objects that have forsaken their identity to become a part of Duchamp's totalizing system. 

In Kelley's artistic universe, objects, images, and materials enter with their auras and meanings intact; here the works make their departure from Duchamp. Rather than forsaking their histories to become part of. totaling system of the artist's design, they are revealed to have meanings and associations that were always there, hidden, until they are made explicit through Kelley's pointed inter­vention. When we see the handmade stuffed animals and croche ed afghans in Kelley's Arenas, it is not his activities in his studio that come to mind, but the emotional histories that these objects carried \Vith them before they even arrived there; their creation as gifts, their cherished status (or not} as tokens of love and affection, and their ultimate discarding into a yard-sale bin where he acquired them. Kelley's use of the conventions of modernist sculpture in his deployment of these focal points of love and loss is violently at odds with their sentimental nature, and this highly engineered dichotomy is exactly what brings that nature to light. Nor does Kelley's work relate specifically (ideologically) to ideas of appropriation as they were evinced by artists in the 1980s with their focus on identity, authorship, and distinctions between high and low culture. Sherrie Levine's rephotographing of the work of Walker Evans points directly to the relationship of the author to the work, as well as Levine's own identity as a female artist. Now, when we view these photographs, having witnessed her act of appropriation. it is the question of authorship that springs immediately to mind. The use of appropriation in the work of Jeff Koons takes on a different character. In Koons•s case, there is no question bout the author of the images; they' re considered authorless, as they belong to the realm of mass culture-and as Kelley has pointed out, their meaning hinges on this distinction. Koons’s aesthetic resuscitation of his banal subjects would be impossible if they did not already carry with them an explicit history of their elevated status as aesthetic objects and subsequent descent into kitsch through their mass production and proliferation.

Kelley’s treatment of his subjects functions in almost the opposite way. His subjects were never elevated in the first place, and it is through his keen aesthetic consideration that their implicit histories are revealed and discovered. The Garbage Drawings are copied from panels of the World War II comic strips by George Baker, Sad Sack, originally published in Yank, a U.S Army Publication. Here Kelley’s subject and object are perfectly aligned, the pathos and the humor of the drawings mirroring Baker’s own. Kelley finds in Baker a kindred spirit, and his Garbage drawings play somewhat a twisted homage. It is a mistake to read Kelley’s base references and commentary on obscure social phenomena as solely a product of irony and kitsch. Nor are they simply an index of his interests. His highlighting of the network of associations that surround his subjects is the result of extensive scholarship and research. This aligns Kelley with the notion of the film actress Maria Montez: A serious scholarship on a subject widely deemed unworthy of such scholarship. It is a passionate sociological study in which authorship is respected and previously ignored authors are given their due. With great personal feeling and identification. Kelley sublimates himself to the unknown or little known figures who are the subject of his investigations.