So a few days before New Years Day we went on a pilgrimage to New York to see Mike Kelley's vast, terrifyingly beautiful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art's PS 1 space in Queens. The space is an old school, and there could be no better place to review all of Kelley's oeuvre than that: a haunted institution gets haunted by a fucked-up phantom-genius. It is four floors of art made by Kelley over a period of 30 or so years, ranging from drawings and paintings to sculptures, videos and installations. It's like entering a gigantic ear and finding your way through tunnel after tunnel until you hit the center of the brain.
The center of this brain is pictured above. Titled, "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991/1999)," it's a school-room inside PS 1 cordoned off, with an attendant at the front sitting in a folding chair, allowing two or three people to enter into the space at a time. The ceremony is papal somehow, as are the plush, dirty, gorgeous satellites of love Kelley created, hanging on pulleys and ropes from the ceiling. On the walls are huge pine-scented room deodorizers hissing out their smell every few seconds like background singers. You approach the satellites the way you might approach a loved one who has Alzheimer's and is currently living inside a locked unit in a nursing home. Carefulness turns into reticence and memories start leaking through your game-face. These are clouds you used to climb into. There are mass-graves lifted from the earth. These are toys you used to talk to suddenly turned away from you forever. A hellishness and heavenliness combined, and in that Blakean moment you're just stunned. Completely fucking stunned.
You know exactly why Kelley did this and yet the words don't come to you. They just drift by like jokes on bumperstickers on shitty cars in shitty towns. You stopped paying attention a long time ago, and now here you are confronted with the results of that ignorance, that amnesia. The creatures from all the bedrooms from the 1980s have combined into a holocaust that doesn't even matter anymore, and yet they have fused into a religion that replaces religion. That's Kelley's lyricism, his curse, and his triumph. This little locked chamber of dementia, these heavy brains suspended in mid-air, planets once populated by action-figures and loved deceased house-cats, grandmas and gunslingers, basket-cases and unaccountable freaks laughing into pillows.
I'm reading Straw for the Fire, selections from Theodore Roethke's notebooks, a hodgepodge of greatness fit for kings and for morons. Roethke and Kelley have to be sitting at an Applebee's in Heaven right now, discussing their favorite thrift-stores and ditches. Straw's greatness comes from its total randomness, and in one section, titled "The Proverbs of Purgatory (1948-1949)," little haiku-like nothings are presented streamlined into a manifesto.
Here are a few that I've pulled that somehow remind me of Kelley's "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites":
All interiors call.
In a house of louts, I lived too happy.
Vision is the end of religion.
The angels ask but never answer.
Even a fire kisses itself.
(This is Part One of an ongoing blog-post series about Kelley's PS 1 retrospective. I'll be going on and on about many of the other suites of works in the show in upcoming days and weeks. It's just too much to fathom in one post...)