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Mike Kelley at PS1: Dark Humor Unseats All Rules and Restraints

Kelley challenges cultural politics and the status quo directly, gender and identity within self and object relations, artistic techniques and forms. Recontextualizing meaning through the alterations of familiar, mundane low-brow imagery and ideas, he unseats social constructions.

Julie Paveglio

Music allows one to enter into a world unbeknownst. I first came into the work of Mike Kelley by the side door, through his collaboration in the experimental improvisational collage sound, music and performance group Destroy All Monsters. Over a decade ago, a professor in my undergraduate study in Michigan suggested the group to me, as well as the artwork of band members Niagara, Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and Mike Kelley. Now living in Brooklyn, I visit his retrospective at nearby PS1, knowing a bit more about Mike Kelley, his work and his 2012 suicide.

The exhibition Mike Kelley at PS1 does not toy with standard artistic tropes or a single medium—Kelly’s works are explosions of a relentless mind—one that was devoted entirely to his artistic practice, one that embraced all mediums. Kelley pushed notions of Surrealism, underground and super hero comics, Pop Art, Feminist biographical sensibilities and craft culture, installation, sculpture, sound and performance into the deep dark trenches of his memory, object and repression, all through a reactionary lens that critiqued hierarchy, authority and institutions—organized systems of power. He toyed with Freud’s ideas of the uncanny, questioning his fears and doubts, not overtly masculine, but boldly standing naked before the viewer as a fool. Kelly’s oeuvre is layered in dark humorous shrouds, transgressive and abject.

Kelley grew up in the middle class suburbs of Detroit to a father who was a public school chief janitor. He studied art at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he and fellow art students Niagara, Jim Shaw and Cary Loren, formed Destroy All Monsters. Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, Kelley was interested in John Sinclair and the White Panther Party. Sinclair, a Detroit poet and one-time manager for the MC5, led the White Panther Party—an extension of the Black Panther Party—a counterculture socialist organization fighting for racial equality and the Civil Rights movement. Cary Levine has written that the White Panthers’ use of radical street theater influenced Kelley, “to render oneself unfit to function in normal society, and thus to prevent oneself from participating in and prolonging it.” The MC5 was called the official band of the White Panther Party and Kelley was taken by their mix of noise and politics—a progression which didn’t sync with the Detroit area which was wallowing in the detritus of Utopian idealism through the cities 1967 race riots and the declining auto industry. In 1976 Kelley went to Cal Arts, in Valencia, California, for graduate studies. There he studied with the visiting artists Laurie Anderson, who impacted his performance work, and Judy Pfaff who influenced his installation based work. There he also studied with professors John Baldessari, Douglas Huenbler and David Askevold. Kelley was more than a student of these artists, he was a colleague exchanging ideas and absorbing possibilities.

The late 1970s brought forth ideas of gender politics and text/image-based work, where formal content was important, but Kelley eventually reinterpreted the conceptual approach, while leaning towards folk-based handmade crafting aesthetics. Kelley deconstructed his conceptualist academic immersion and embraced reductive primary forms in which their banality jostled the belief systems of daily life. “Birdhouses” made by Kelley for his MFA thesis show at CalArts, 1978, range in what Kelley referred to as underpinnings, “Far,” “Wide,” and “Tall,” to “Gothic,” “Catholic,” “Infinity,” and “Birdhouse with an Egg Chute.” The birdhouses were accompanied by explanative drawings and side notes on spiral bound notebook paper, pinned to the wall. The paper and the houses were very minimal, anti-aesthetic, reductive and banal. Each house questions the viewers’ associations between the birdhouse and title as explanation. Kelley exploited the viewers’ attempt at systematic thought and traditional art practices of making sense from a title to the work. From his MFA poster advertising his work, Kelley wrote:

Assuming that the bird is
A symbol of the soul
The birdhouse is the body
All things carnal
Anything other than a
And shouldn’t be built
Except in states of extreme
Self confidence
You can pretend you can.

Further, in 1992, Kelley told John Miller of BOMB maazine:
At the time, people would generally talk about the birdhouses as formal jokes. People wouldn’t consider sublimation as an aspect of art production except in some heady, Freudian way, like, “Oh, these bad impulses are being nicely put into this object.” Instead of saying maybe it’s not so nice that these impulses are put into these objects. Maybe it’s pitiful that all these energies are pumped into a birdhouse. That’s what I realized I was going for, not some one-line joke like, “Here’s a birdhouse that’s minimalism.” Rather, here’s a structure that’s loaded with pathos, and you still don’t like it, you don’t feel sorry for it, you want to kick it. That’s what I wanted out of the thing—an artwork that you couldn’t raise, there was no way that you could make it better than it was. Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable.

Kelley challenged the characteristics of Conceptual art by using the debased, seemingly blank, birdhouse subject matter, followed by an ironic DIY handcrafted construction with idiosyncratic titles. Each of the houses are minimally constructed, no ornamentation, varying in entryway, playing with architectural form, sometimes turned upside-down or with multiple, repetitive roofs. In Catholic Birdhouse, Kelley depicts a horizontal white rectangle with a simplified short dark roof with two front entryway holes. Slightly below the roofs pitch is a very small hole with agitated, chipped marks, with the title above, in caps, THE HARD ROAD. Below the hole is a small cylindrical peg for a perch. Two inches below this hole appears a much larger, standard entryway, clean and without chipped marks. An inch below the hole in a larger cylindrical pegged perch, beneath lays the title, in caps, THE EASY ROAD. Kelley’s use of text plays with common biblical binary parables. His attached handwritten notations for each house continue to toy with Conceptual art practices through playful, far-fetched scenarios that defy the objects utility. In another birdhouse, entitled “Birdhouse for a Bird That is Near and a Bird That is Far,” Kelley states on a handwritten notation,

This house is hinged from one end to the other front, where entryways face opposite sides, one hole large and the other small, remotely connected on a hinge. Through his written notations, Kelley plays with oppositions of power, but gives each bird, “near” and “far,” equal space and occupancy—equality in the bird housing market—or as Cary Loren referred to it as, “a completely irrational rationalization.” Kelley plays with the assumption that meaning is constructed through object or text, the basis of the Conceptual art framework.

In the mid 1980s, Kelley created language-based work, focusing more on his social perspective, addressing his identity and broader social issues of gender, sex, history, repression and conditioning. In 1987 Kelley made his Half a Man series of handmade felt banners referencing the 1960s radicalism and aesthetic of Sister Mary Corita Kent, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from 1936 until 1968, when she left the order and devote her life entirely to art. Kent used modern graphics, bright color—influenced by pop culture, art and the counterculture—evocative biblical and religious text of charity, hope, peace and love. Kent died in September of 1986 and Kelley exhibited his banners in 1987.

In the catalogue of the original version of this exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Kelley states: I’d say my work is primarily about playing with conventions… My entrance into the art world was through the counterculture, where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and “pervert” it to reverse or alter its meaning. That approach is the essence of camp. Mass culture is scrutinized to discover what is hidden, repressed, within it.

The banner entitled Let’s Talk shows a subdued cranberry red banner, reminiscent of one that would be displayed in a Catholic Church on either side of the alter, with a centrally focused large figural shaped jug, seemingly for liquid. The jug is labeled with the word “Cookies” and has three simplified red flowers surrounding the word. Above and below the cookie jar reads, “LET’S TALK ABOUT DISOBEYING.” The banner suggests eating a sweat nugget, as in Sunday school or church gatherings, but, with the purpose of reacting against doctrine and dogma. Another banner, called “Three-Point Program/Four Eyes,” reads “PANTS SHITTER AND PROUD P.S. JERK-OFF TOO (AND I WEAR GLASSES). Here, Kelley divulges his weaknesses, his less-than-masculine tendencies and biographical revelations that presume a humbled, outsider identity.

In his 2004 book, Kelley states:
…The works address issues of gender-specific imagery and the family. Those that do this most obviously are related to craft traditions (the banners…) since handicrafts, like sewing and home decorating, have traditionally been thought of as women’s activities, while craft using woodworking skills have generally been considered masculine pastimes. Derived from modernist sources such as Henri Matisse’s cutouts and Alexander Calder’s prints, their outward form elicits a joyous primitivism, a stylized adult misrepresentation of children’s art. Because they are used to preach to children, or to the child in us, we infer the rules of authority and the family—the patriarchy—hidden under the loving exteriors of the banners.

Of gender and identity, Kelley stated that he originally intended for the pieces to question ideas within the commodity discourse that dominated the art world in the 1980s. Speaking of his childhood and challenging gender/identity rolls in the Stedelijk catalogue, Kelley states:
There is a photo of me, when I was around fifteen or sisteen, holding a crude doll that I sewed. But I had no desire to learn to sew; I only sewed the doll in order to anger my father. He kept trying to force me to these masculine activites that didn’t interest me—like working on cars or playing basketball. I didn’t want to do any of that; I just wanted to hang around with my hippie stoner friends and listen to records and goof off. He treated me like a sissy, so I became a sissy to get revenge. I sewed this figure and decorated my bedroom with frilly little girls’ dolls—but missed them up with anarchist and psychedelic poster… This kind of reaction radicalized me and made me aware of how strict gender identifications were… By the time I left home to go to college it would not be uncommon for me to be dressed in my custodial uniform and work boots, but with a 50s girl sweater and nail polish. It didn’t make any sense—it wasn’t normal “cross-dressing.”

Kelley’s young adult experiences were foundations for the underpinnings of his birdhouses and banners—challenging conventions with nonsensical performances in his daily attire and bedroom decoration. In another banner entitled “Trash Picker,” text surrounds a colorful red, orange, yellow psychedelic schematic of a narrow, vulva like shape with the cross—or clitoris—at the center. The text reads “I AM USELESS TO THE CULTURE BUT GOD LOVES ME.”

The ever-so-sweet presentation softens the message of ones inadequacy in relation to authority. Kelley’s faith is definitely unsatisfied, with sugar on top, and challenges the hippie-flower-power movement of peace and love through feelings of personal uselessness in society. These banners are weak, hollowed-out, topical attempts at idealist utopianism, political propaganda, but with great discord, mixing the cheerily beautiful with dissent. The banners elicit a transgressive nature greater than the birdhouses do, which were more minimal and subtle in contradictory meaning and simplified formal construction. Kelley challenges cultural politics and the status quo directly, gender and identity within self and object relations, artistic techniques and forms. Recontextualizing meaning through the alterations of familiar, mundane low-brow imagery and ideas, he unseats social constructions.

The handmade crafting of the banners highlight Kelley’s influence from feminist art practices, where fabric and thread are manifestations of emotional content and personal biography. By working these elements, Kelley challenges the feminist strategy by challenging his manliness and gender oppressive roles placed upon him. Cary Levine argues that Kelly “can be positioned against the resurgence of machismo in 1980s art, most notable in conjunction with the rise of neo-expressionism. Artists such as Julian Schnabel envisioned themselves as the “new Pollocks,” and their revival of large-scale gestural painting triggered a return to the manly rhetoric and heroic personas of postwar American art… Kelley, by contrast, publicly emasculates himself, fashioning a “new Pollock” of a very different kind—wholly insincere and inauthentic.” Politically, second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s pushed a neoconservative 1980s and its Reaganomics—a leader in masculinity. However, Kelley’s work is inherently more than mere reaction to feminism, it uniquely mashes critique of flower-power, religious altruism and idealism, and the societal constructs of authority, roles, identity and gender. In this mixed jumble of ideas, Kelley unseats all rules and restraints and ultimately his work represents the asinine reality of organized authoritarian systems within society.

Julie Paveglio is a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Michigan. She is finishing her MFA in painting at Brooklyn College and loves NYC. Her cat, Ornette, is her fur-child. Her favorite food is spaghetti and she likes Lemonheads hard candy. You can find her on Blogger, Twitter, Instagram and at

Kelley's birdhouses Birdhouse for a Bird That is Near and a Bird That is Far, Gothic Birdhouse, Catholic Birdhouse (1978); Kelley's banners Let’s Talk, Three-Point Program/Four Eyes; Trash Picker (1987). Sister Mary Corita Kent, The Big G Stands for Goodness> (1960s).

For Further Reading:

Crane, Anita, Trans-Love Energies and the MC5: The Blazing Revolution According to John Sinclair, Rumpus, March 23rd, 2011,

Davis, Ben, “Working Through Mike Kelly’s Lacerating Lifework at PS1”, October 16, 2013, Blouin Art Info.

Hale, Jeff, "The White Panthers’ 'Total Assault on the Culture,” Imagine Nation, 2001.

Hershman, Lynn, “!Women Art Revolution: Interview with Mike Kelley,” July 27, 2006, Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources.

Kennedy, Randy, “A Maverick Student and Teacher A Mike Kelley Retrospective Fills MoMA PS1,” The New York Times, October 10, 2013.

Kent, Corita, Corita Art Center.

Kelley, Mike, edited by Welchman, John C., Mike Kelley, Minor Histories, Statements, Conversations, Proposals, MIT Press, 2004.

Levine, Cary, “Pay For Your Pleasures,” 2013.

“Mike Kelley,” edited by Eva Meyer-Hermann and Lisa Gabrielle Mark, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2012.

Miller, John, “Mike Kelley,” Bomb Magazine, #38, Winter 1992.

Oursler, Tony, “Mike Kelley,” Artforum Magazine, May 1, 2012.

Rochette, Anne and Saudners, Wayne, “Mike Kelley Paris, Centre Pompidou,” Art in America, October 1st, 2013.

Ziemba, Christine N., “CalArts Mourns the Loss of Legendary Artist Mike Kelley,” February 1, 2012.

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