'There are chords in the heart of every man', wrote Edgar Allan Poe, 'that, once struck, yield a universal harmony.' This need to dig deeper into oneself to find things that will touch others is a paradox that every artist negotiates, and it came to mind while viewing Mike Kelley's recent exhibition 'Blackout', by far his most autobiographical, inward-gazing body of work. Following the precedent established by such works as Educational Complex (1995), a model of the schools the artist attended constructed from memory, 'Blackout' focuses on Kelley's teen years in suburban Detroit. An extensive project, excavating not only geographical but also social, historical and psychological space, the exhibition combined a number of photographs of places and objects significant to Kelley, approximately 450 photographs of newspaper articles from 1968-72, a ten-foot-high statue of astronaut John Glenn sheathed in broken crockery, rusted bits of metal and other rubbish found in an old dump near the Detroit River and, lastly, eight sculptures made from the soil taken from each of the islands surrounding Detroit and formed into the Hindu symbols for the male and female genitalia, Lingham and Yoni.
Though arcane, these images and references contained a surprising degree of emotional resonance. Steeped in memory, 'Blackout' looks back not in anger but with a poignant melancholy. Literally digging up the past, Kelley's reclamation resulted in an almost funereal meditation on loss, infused with a charmed sense of accomplishment. Walking into the densely packed installation, with its heavy black frames and looming statue, was something like entering a Pharaoh's tomb. The sombre air seemed to squelch the smirks and giggles one usually finds at a Kelley show, which isn't to say the works lacked humour: how can one not smile at a Butter-Coloured Vision of the Land O'Lakes Girl, Peche Island (2001)? Or the cluster of meteorite-like rocks that make up John Glenn's butt?
Eschewing drawing or painting, almost everything in the exhibition could be read as documentation or found artefact. Kelley's installation is ordered and museological, casting him as archaeologist and archivist. Displayed in huge, vertical cases, which could be pulled out for viewing and grouped according to subject matter and theme, the re-photographed newspaper clippings created from cultural detritus a portrait of the artist. Hidden amid the captions celebrating the transient thrills of ventriloquist acts, African art displays, high school musicals, rodeos, beauty pageants, rock festivals and appearances by Bozo and Milky the Magic Clown and news items concerning social ills, race relations, drug busts, urban blight and miraculous occurrences, were a couple of blurbs about Michael D. Kelley, already, at the age of 17, winning awards for his art work.
If his past work dealt at length with the psychological formation of the subject, here Kelley investigated the forces that formed him, positioning himself within a cultural matrix that underscored the inseparability of his autobiography from his art. Expansive and wildly energetic - as witness not only his own prolific production in every possible medium but also his numerous fruitful collaborations - Kelley is perhaps second only to Andy Warhol in the range and depth of his activities. Yet where Warhol's detached persona allowed him to participate in many ventures in name only, Kelley is always hands on, putting an indelible stamp on everything he touches. What then are the ramifications of Kelley turning his attention to his own past?
Though concerned with repressed memory syndrome, 'Blackout' digs up enough fragments to piece together a picture of Kelley that suggests an undeniable evolution, a linear progression connecting today's Mike to yesterday's Michael D. That who we are today was already evident in who we were
yesterday is an idea that we all like to believe, one that shores up that necessary sense of ourselves as whole, contained and unique. Yet for an artist whose work has gleefully shot holes in every paradigm of wholeness, twisted notions of linearity and subjected Freudian theories to his own home-spun psychoanalysis this sudden investment in old-school concepts of the self seems surprising. Or does it? As Kelley himself has discussed, memory is always being rewritten and our recollections are often simply manifestations of our present desires, sheer wish fulfilment. In this sense 'Blackout' does not so much unearth the past as construct a history - of an artist who, over the last quarter-century has transformed the very landscape of contemporary art.
Thanks to Kelley trash is no longer a challenge to high art, it is high art. The abject no longer subverts authority, but is an authority to be subverted. Failure is a key to success and being pathetic is egocentric. Which explains why the Glenn statue remains heroic despite its hollow interior and crappy façade. A stand-in for the artist, a lone explorer of both outer and inner space, the Glenn Kelley figure - part cyborg, part Golem - rises broken but triumphant from the muck, a reminder that our post-human future is not so different from our Romantic past.
First published in Issue 69