I'd really only been in Los Angeles for a little over a year when I profiled artist Mike Kelley in the late parts of May in 2010. I had been hired on at a fashion magazine in Hollywood, specifically to inject a little bit of art world panache into the pages of an otherwise culturally underwhelming -- save a developed eye for capital "F" Fashion -- title. Art was just starting to gather mainstream steam back then, and L.A.'s own scene was just turning the corner into what it is today (n.b. Katy Perry just announced she's an art collector).
I had requested to interview Kelley the first issue I was there, having been a fan of his work since early adulthood, him being that sort of rejectionist art punk anti-hero that appeals to young people -- Raymond Pettibon, Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe. They were all tangy punks with tons to say, but with a distinctive aesthetic sensibility. I deigned to be like that.
When Kelley committed suicide -- tragically -- a few years later, it hit me hard. I knew he was in the middle of working with the Stedelijk Museum on a career retrospective. The Stedelijk show was a bittersweet success, and it ended up at MoMA's PS1 in New York.
The recently opened exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles is a kind of "homecoming" for Kelley, since he lived here since relocating from Detroit to go to art school in 1978. It's a shitstorm with more than 250 works in it. I use "shitstorm" affectionately; it's the type of word Kelley would describe something with himself. A few years ago, when Kelley and performance artist Michael Smith decided to bring their collaborative show "A Voyage of Growth and Discovery" to Kelley's warehouse studio in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Northeast Los Angeles, nearby where Mr. Kelley lived, he called it a "piece of shit."
He didn't mean the show was a piece of shit in the way you or I might think of something as a piece of shit. He meant it ironically. When you look at his hundreds of works at MOCA it's easy to see that Kelley used irony like a blunt object to the skull. He aimed that blunt object at institutions, those nefarious public places like museums and schools that are ostensibly for education and cultural elevation, but end up being more of the problem than the solution, and leveled them in mighty swipes.
He would call those places "shit sandwiches," hold the irony.
Apart from institutional scatology, Kelley zeroed in on childhood tragedy, sexuality, violence, community awareness, and pretty much anything he wanted to address with whatever tools he had at his disposal. And always with honesty. He was, for all intents and purposes, the great art world psychologist.
Take the "Educational Complex" works that fill a large portion of the show at MOCA. Originally conceived in 1995, Kelley re-created from memory architectural models of all the schools he ever studied in, from his Catholic elementary school all the way through college. Here, Kelley is a prisoner in his own personal hellholes, forcing himself to deal with the memories he repressed from his formal education. But then he denies the veracity of these personal histories -- much of it is untrue, he says -- he absolves himself of autobiographical necessity. "Abuse Report," a work from that period, is a falsified child abuse account, for instance. "Raised by zombies... Brainwashed into a cult... Left for dead," read the accusations. How's that for a shit sandwich?
Or there's "Pay for Your Pleasure" (1998), another work in the MOCA show, begins with a donation box. After paying what they choose, the viewer enters a hallway of portraits of intellectuals and artists like Breton and Sartre emblazoned with quotes each subject said about the space between violence and artistic creation. "The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose," says Oscar Wilde. At the end of the hallway, a piece by a significant local violent criminal hangs i.e. when the piece was shown in Chicago, an artwork by John Wayne Gacy; here at MOCA, it is by an anonymous Los Angeles criminal. You get what you pay for, Mr. Kelley seems to be saying directly to those people who extol George W. Bush's foray into artistic expression. He mixed brilliant production quality with trash, purposeful crudeness with exacting precision, and intellectual rigor with offensive humor to get his point across. And to be fair, he wasn't for everyone, but he was for me.
Which is why I jumped out of my skin at the chance to interview him.
I rolled up to the warehouse in the afternoon. The building was easy to find, because it was right on a straightaway on Colorado Boulevard, and it has a vintage sign out front of it that says "Farley Storage," a reminder that the building was once an urban cargo hold. I remember it was sunny, and inside, where the building had been turned into a cavernous space that resembled an aircraft hangar, it was air conditioned and dark enough for the screens of several videos to play clearly. Kelley was the first person I saw -- his unmistakable dimpled face one that I'd seen in his famous video art many times.
But here was a man who started a seminal punk band, Destroy All Monsters, and basically punched holes in the art world's façade of shit, and he was leaning on a cane. "Gout," he said within the first few moments, his voice sounding like a defeated shrug.
Gout is basically high levels of uric acid in the bloodstream. It's the same thing that causes kidney stones, but it's in the joints. Kelley had it in his knees or his feet, and it hobbled him. From what I've read, and can imagine, it's incredibly painful. I remember wincing at his diagnosis.
But I caught him smiling on several occasions. That first meeting, we didn't talk much -- just a little small talk about the then-nascent restaurant scene in Eagle Rock -- but he let me observe the install. The show was made up of several structures that Kelley had crafted, including a geodesic dome filled with thrifted stuffed animals that people were encouraged to enter and lounge in. "A cuddle puddle," Kelley said with a knowing smirk. He had often used stuffed animals in his work until critics and journalists decided it was because Kelley had been abused as a child (he hadn't), and this return to medium was a bit of nose thumbing.
The rest of show was several screens depicting Smith, a performance artist of the highest regard, on a trip to Burning Man in his famed infantalist get-up called "Baby Ikki." He'd been doing the confrontational character since 1975 -- imagine being in a room and a man in a baby suit comes bumbling through -- and Burning Man was the most natural, organic place Baby Ikki could go. In fact, later in an interview before an affiliated artist talk in the theater at CalArts' Downtown L.A. art center REDCAT, Smith expressed the faintest frustration that, as most Burners were in their own ridiculous costumes, Baby Ikki didn't even register. No one noticed.
It made for sidesplitting video art -- the hapless Burners sending themselves up in a puff of smoke. Of course, neither Smith nor Kelley admitted to creating the piece as any sort of indictment of the partygoers themselves, but as a document of the martial American gathering. Burning Man just happened to be a perfect Dionysian example.
Several videos played on screens scattered around the room at once, each with the same sound levels. At times, the show was unbearable. At one point, I remember several videos bursting with thumping dance music, both field-recorded Burning Man sounds and music created by Smith and local sound and visual artist Scott Benzel, a longtime collaborator of Kelley's. I was literally, comically thrust across the room by sound.
That was the other time I saw Kelley smile. This smile was wide, mischievous.
Mr. Kelley delighted in the act of debasement. If there was a journalist he could butcher with sound, he would. He loved to piss off critics, curators, and/or anyone else involved in any sort of institution. Later, another Los Angeles artist Kaari Upson would tell me that at some CalArts benefit or another, where she and Kelley were alumni, he drunkenly climbed the stage, commandeered the mic, and called the place a "shithole" or some other such colorful descriptor. This revered education, a "shithole!" He probably meant it with both love and spite.
After our initial meeting, I would bike to Kelley's homey studio in Highland Park and interview him dutifully about the show, and we sat and chatted for over an hour. I had a photographer shoot a portrait of him in the bright sun, and then we went to the "Voyage" opening, and ate buffet at the afterparty at the women's auxiliary up the street. Even later, I would go to the benefit for West of Rome, a public art non-profit run by Kelley's ex-girlfriend, the boisterous and talented Italian curator Emi Fontana, who worked on Kelley's exhibitions for many years, and whom I consider a friend. That night, Kelley performed a wild solo drum set, pounding out percussive sounds and yelping and hooting and hollering with primal abandon. He was in his element, and that element was weird. YaHoWha13, the surviving members of cult leader Father Yod's band, also played.
I remember I would catch Kelley wandering around the party alone, limping into his cane. I'm not reading into anything. That's just the way he was at openings. He wasn't a social creature, didn't like small talk. I caught him by the buffet table and we got into a conversation about Father Yod, whose cult The Source Family, basically invented vegetarianism as we now know it in America. The conversation turned to the Detroit and Los Angeles music scenes. He gave me some recommendations, some weirdo outsider noise shit. I did the same.
"Art saved my life," he said, later, when we were sitting on his couches in his studio. "Art was the place that made me want to educate myself. When I became an artist, it was where the most interesting thinkers were."
I can't imagine my own life without art, without being able to see work like Mike Kelley's and try to understand what art is and can do. It sounds a little corny, but it's something that maybe we who work in art forget from time to time. I make a living by interviewing artists, and it can be thrilling and frustrating, but mostly it's intellectually stimulating. Talking to Kelley may have been the most interesting of all the interviews I've ever done.
In October, when my friends Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman were exhibiting in an old Schindler House in Miracle Mile, they said I could have my birthday party in the exhibition. I invited Kelley to DJ my party, knowing that we hit it off, and he entertained the notion, but ultimately he bowed out. He was busy working on what would be one of his last pieces, a mobile community center for his hometown of Detroit. The piece is permanent, and sits on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit.
I couldn't blame him. If I had the wherewithal to start a community center in a struggling city as an art piece, I would too. His piece resonates with the type of guy that he was: genuine, uncompromising, and good.
When he killed himself, I was horrified. The rest of the art world was shaken, and still is. Kelley meant a lot to so many people. Where I knew him as a pillar of the Angeleno arts community, others knew him as an educator, a connector, a beacon, a collaborator, a boss (he hired a ton of Angeleno artists to work in his studio), and simply a great artist.
At the opening of the MOCA exhibition, the curator Bennett Simpson mentioned that Kelley was in the very first show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1983, "The First Show: Paintings and Sculpture From Eight Collections 1940-1980." That's how important to the city he was. In fact, the museum has collected 36 of his works over the years.
The show at the Museum of Contemporary Art that's up right now, it's pitch perfect. There are challenging pieces -- things that make you want to look away -- and there are glowing, beautiful pieces. They're tough and political and intricate and bombastic. Most of all, they're haunted with intellectual beauty -- the voice of a man who spoke eloquently through his art.
Art maybe didn't save his life, but it vacuum-sealed it for everyone to see. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do than wander through a space full of his work, thinking about their implications, and remembering what a sweet gentleman Kelley happened to be. Or as he proclaims himself on a felt banner hanging in the museum: "PANTS SHITTER & PROUD / PS JERK-OFF TOO / (AND I WEAR GLASSES)." I think he'd prefer that description.