Thursday, February 2, 2012


Distressing news indeed, the apparent suicide of the Los Angeles-based artist, Mike Kelley, whose influence among his middle-generation peers and among younger artists was immense. His work, to this observer at least, was profoundly unsettling--and I mean that not in a negative way: I do not have to be confirmed in all my prejudices about art when I go to look at it. I have discovered over the years that it is considerably more satisfying, more rewarding, and eventually more important to be disturbed. Among other things, Kelley's work challenged some of my deeply-buried assumptions about childhood, about art, and about life itself.

Childhood, his work reminded us, is not all innocence and joy. The dark side, easily glossed over, forgotten or sublimated, is a powerful force in our experience as children, and can often pursue us for the rest of our lives. The experience of birth itself is a traumatic one, squeezing our way down from our comfortable perch in the womb down that dark, narrow passage into a world that is unimaginably vast and frightening. We are born with no control over our natural functions: our piss and our excrement are major elements in our lives. We soon grow into weird little creatures, surrounded by giants. Our parents are irresistibly powerful, provoking us into furious and impotent rebellion. The world that surrounds us is beyond all our efforts to control it. We are bombarded with stories peopled by terrifying and unknowable supernatural forces, by witches and ogres... and so on. The most powerful of Kelley's work, in so far as I knew it--and I confess, I have more of an occasional acquaintance than an in-depth familiarity--drew heavily on that source. It recalled the fury of childhood, the revenge on beloved toys.

As for art, Kelley's work required me to get past my initial revulsion. At some deep level inside, I carry around the notion that art should be somehow decorous--not decorative, I'm pas that, but decorous. It's associated, perhaps, with something I also learned in childhood: to be always, unfailingly, polite and considerate of others; to follow the rules. Kelley's art was determinedly indecorous, impolite, not only in substance but in form. It was rude, crude, scatological, un-well made. It broke the rules that make things safe and acceptable. My prejudice asks for subtlety, for the demonstration of skill, for visual gratification. Kelley's work had none of those. It required me, whenever I encountered it, to reassess my sense of what art is all about.

And what did learn from his art about life? Disturbing as it was, it confronted me with the evidence of human suffering, and of the struggle in which we so readily engage with the pain we are all too frequently handed as a part of our experience. I have never, myself, reached that point where the suffering is so great that it becomes unendurable. I have never once felt the urge to surrender my life in order to relieve the pain. While I do not lack compassion for those who do, it remains very hard for me to understand. By art world standards, Kelley was amply rewarded for his work with all the trappings of success; but seemingly none of that was enough for him to find lasting happiness in this life. If there is truth to the Buddhist notion of rebirth, I wish him a happier new existence than this one has been.

Describing what may have been the last interview with the artist, Tulsa Kinney's recent article in Artillery magazine is a chilling and provocative read. Her poignant follow-up was just posted online.

Kelley died at the age of 57. In a thought-provoking footnote to this news, the New York Times posted an obituary, on the same day, of the painter Dorothea Tanning. She died at 101, having outlived her one-time husband, Max Ernst, by 35 years. Senor Death, as we know, is not even-handed in his work.


gregg chadwick said...

Thanks Peter for this poignant peace. Depression leads to what most of us would call irrational decisions. My wife studies depression/resilience and it is a continual topic of discussion in our home. One of the next great tasks for the United States is to increase understanding and help for those with depression. It will not be easy. But your heartfelt essay on Mike Kelley will help people get rid of immediate prejudices. Compassion for all sentient beings needs to be encouraged daily.

Anthony said...
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JillGee said...

Thank you Peter. He was a great soul.