Mixed Feelings on Mike Kelley

Detail of Mike Kelley's Educational Complex, 1995 (Credit: Artspace)
Detail of Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex, 1995 (Credit: Artspace)

It was 19 hours in Pankow, Berlin. The cold was eating away at my extremities. But I was on a mission. My plan was to arrive at my dorm to freshen up fast enough to get to Laura López Paniagua’s lecture on the work of Mike Kelley only a modest 5 minutes late. Being an Arts and Society student here at BCB, this lecture was to be a sacred right of passage. I arrived in my dorm and applied my aromas and silks. Just steps away from my door, I realized I did not know where this lecture was being held. I looked through my email history with ferocity. I found the location: the lecture hall, naturally. But what is this “lecture hall”? I have had lectures in many rooms here at Bard Berlin. I racked my memory. This was as hard as any question on a test. I deduced it must be the structure across from the admin building. I realized I do not know the numbers of any of these buildings. They all seem to be 24, whether it be Platanenstr.,  Kuckhoffstr., the list goes on. 24, 24, 24. I arrived and ascended the staircase. I got into the building and, to my relief, there were middle aged men and women milling around, empty wine glasses, and some nice bottled water ready to fill them. I was not late after all.

I was not just there to enjoy the lecture, but to report on it. Being at the lecture as a reporter forced me to question whether I should I be critical of the presentation by Lopez Paniagua or Mike Kelley’s art. I am reporting on the lecture, not the subject of it. But maybe that is missing the point. Ms. Lopez Paniagua was not merely here to deliver a rousing lecture, but to instill an understanding of Kelley’s work, or so I assume. Which is more important: the artistic quality of the lecture, or the artistic quality of the artwork? And must I be critical? “Critic” is not in my job description. I could just summarize the lecture. Who am I to judge? But, as an Arts and Society student at BCB, I’ll give myself some credit and judge. And as for analyzing the lecture or the art, I will try to do both. A blend.

The lights in the room dimmed and Laura López Paniagua commanded the attention of the audience. Her lecture focused on the discussion of child abuse within Mike Kelley’s work, and how it fit into the media climate of the 1990s that was becoming more interested in such issues. The lecture did not seem concerned with Mike Kelley’s career as an artist as much as the role he and his work played in the child abuse conversation. From my knowledge of Kelley, he was a conceptual artist prominent in the 1980s and 90s. He was known for using found objects and textile-like materials, and his forms resembled stuffed animals. The focus of the lecture was a discussion of Kelley’s “Educational Complex”.

This was a model of a school which, when built and walked through, was meant to shock the viewer’s unconscious. According to Kelley, it “was done directly in response to the rising infatuation of the public with issues of Repressed Memory Syndrome and child abuse…and the popularization of…therapy which was predicated on the idea that certain traumatic events…are repressed and only removed later through therapy” (Whitney Museum of American Art). Laura López Paniagua discussed how sexual abuse of children was gaining a lot of attention from the media and how the dialogue on it in the psychology community was changing. The concept of “Repressed Memory Syndrome” had become defunct, and taking its place was the idea that people can create memories that do not have a root in reality but still be traumatized by them. Many people interpreted from his work that Kelley had been abused as a child: His work ranges from disfigured toys to underground mazes. But his intention was to portray himself as an “aesthetic victim,” not a “familial” one, and to use art as a way to explore the social position of the victim. However, the fact that the two realms–the social and the artistic–get blurred in certain interpretations of Kelley’s work speaks to its effectiveness.

I found Laura López Paniagua’s lecture fascinating. The human mind is such a mystery.

Mike Kelley’s art prompts a discussion of psychology and particularly the psychology of abuse. While this is an important and honorable discussion, it is a discussion and not visual art. I do not think that Kelley’s “Educational Complex” stands up visually to other great visual art. Without the language behind it, it would not exist.

I was expecting to feel this negativity about all of his work, as this is my response to the output of most conceptual artists. In my opinion, for something to be visual art the experience of the work of art must only be conveyed fully by seeing it. If you can describe the work in words, and elicit a similar emotional response from the audience, this is not visual art. It is linguistic expression. I am not a philosopher or linguist, so these categories could be more perfectly described, but visual art is visual. There can be great visual expressions of politics, but they are politics, not visual art. The encounter with art should cause a reaction you could only have from seeing this art. However, to Kelley’s credit, while googling him, I found some work of his that I do like. Some of his jumbles of yarn and toy-like soft objects are visually compelling. He assembles colorful found objects and stuffed animals into large rectangles, which reference painting. They remind me a bit of abstract expressionism, which I love.

More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages Of Sin. 1987 (Credit: MoMA PS1)
More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages Of Sin, 1987 (Credit: MoMA PS1)

I am surprised at my own comparison of Kelley to abstract expressionism, since I love abstract expressionism and hate most conceptual art. But Kelley’s “paintings” have beauty in their colorfulness. They really do not stand up to Jackson Pollock’s paintings, but I can take them seriously visually and enjoy looking at them. They are playful. I am not sure whether Kelley cared very much about the visual of his work, though, as he is considered a conceptual artist. His utilization and focus on socio-political subject matter made me think he was much more concerned with concept than the visual. Even the work that I compared to abstract expressionism could be a satire thereof, which implies Kelley thinks the visual is laughable in the face of the conceptual. My feelings on Kelley are mixed: I dislike his being a conceptual artist and his possible satire of abstract expressionism but, on the other hand, some of his work is visually compelling. This work was not the focus of the lecture, though. The lecture was about the “Educational Complex”.

In the case of Kelley’s “Educational Complex”, a similar reaction can be evoked by the descriptions of his concepts and the sight of this work. In my opinion, this disqualifies a piece from being “visual art”. So I respect Mike Kelley as a thinker and an agitator, but I do not consider him a great visual artist.


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