Mike Kelley is a pioneer and fine example of an American tradition that has yet to be effectively commodified into simple artspeak or an art historical term, even though we now understand its parameters as entirely established. We know that it’s what came after Pop and Conceptualism but before the re-approach of more traditional media such as painting. To describe it as installation or video art is not enough. Sure, these aspects are frequently present, but they are merely technical descriptors for its manifestation, not its actual mode of address, its grand gestures and inner motivations.
Like the preceding generation of artists, Kelley’s is a world in which the popular culture of the USA plays a pivotal part, as can be seen, yet again in his current solo show at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills space. However, whereas the pure imagery of popular culture was often enough for Pop artists, Mike Kelley was the pioneer of a subsequent generation in which the narratives and meanings of popular culture are almost internalised, their mythologies as resonant and relevant as any philosophical or even religious text. It is not only how they look, but what they might contain as occult knowledge or epic scale poetics that seem to drive the works.
This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the Kandors series that form a substantial part of the show at Gagosian. Originally started in 1999, The Kandors concerns itself with the city of Superman’s birth, the last remaining part of his home planet of Krypton. Comic book mythology, patchy and inconsistent, tells us that Superman preserved the miniature city in a special tank of the atmosphere necessary to sustain life on his home planet. In Kelley’s hands, the representations of this legendary city take on an equitable poetic weight compared with any doomed Utopian lost civilization from highly regarded mystical texts, religious traditions or ancient folklore. Preserved in hand-blown glass bottles – the metropolitan version of the ship that remains somehow eternally free even if only within the unlikely confines of a bottle- they are presented with the same awe originally reserved for ancient relics or sacred depictions of perfect civilizations unfit for discovery by unworthy and tainted humankind.
The remainder of the exhibition is devoted to a new work from Kelley’s ongoing EAPR series and, indeed, it is a rare event for Kelley to combine work from these two distinct bodies of work within a single cohesive exhibition. The EAPR series are based on what Kelley has referred to as “folk performances”. In these works that draw on the iconography of the detritus of everyday Americana – documentations of school plays, community pageants and celebrations – Kelley’s linage from Pop is often clear. But, in the hands of Kelley and a number of his contemporaries, even though the stuff of daily lives played out in small towns and suburbs across the USA is discernibly present, the apparently neutral stance of Pop is discarded in favour or an opaque and moody atmosphere that is often enigmatic and difficult to locate in simple logical turns. In EAPR #35, for example, a group of gnomes shuffle about without purpose in a cell.
The current exhibition at Gagosian offers the perfect opportunity for both the familiar and the unexposed to experience Kelley’s work for, in one sense, there is little else that really does it justice. Sure, the theoretical clarity is always there and a lot can be said about it; observations on the heady mix of psychoanalytic ideas, cinema, folklore, popular culture and so on ad infinitum, not to mention the more formal aspects of the work. Terms like ‘immersive’ are problematic when it comes to Kelley. For one thing, the level of abstraction and lack of representation or narratives that often come to mind when thinking of artists who are usually associated with ‘immersive environments’ bear no similarity to Kelley’s mode of address. But, until one has fully entered into a space that Kelley has colonised with his work, no matter how lucid the account, some key element of the experience can simply not be described.
Best then to head to Gogasian in Beverly Hills before the end of the show.