very sad to hear about mike kelley’s death ... although i have this nagging feeling that if i am sentimental in any way, he’ll come back either make fun of me or kick my ass.
i was fortunate to meet mike and work with him as a student in both undergrad and grad school. when i started undergrad school, mike was one of the few links i could look to between the punk scene and the art scene, and as a teacher, his studio visits, tended to be either unbelievably brilliant - he was surprisingly good at pointing out a problem area in an abstract painting - or vague and frustrating - offering comments like “i don’t know... that green just kind of bugs me...”
during grad school, he wasn’t on my committee, but whenever the student who had the studio next to mine was late for a meeting, mike would end up in my studio, offering thoughts on what i was working on. he had an incredible knack for making off-the-cuff comments that i would end up thinking about for ages... as his ability to break a work down formally was pretty freaking brilliant.
i remember him looking at a painting of mine when i was an undergrad, telling me that i was being too precious about certain areas, and that if i did something once i could do it again, pushing me not to be afraid to paint over things that i liked, so as not to get too attached to certain parts... ten years later, i was sharing a studio with another artist who was incredulous at my ability to paint over things i’d spent weeks working on; and while i don’t believe that everything i do in the process of a painting can be replicated - i have continually reaped the benefits of kelley's advice towards not being afraid to destroy individual gems for the sake of the whole...
certainly, in terms of the vast gap between our work, we didn’t agree on much, and i’m pretty sure he had little interest in my work in grad school - especially where it was coming from. i wrote my thesis as a piece of fiction that was unabashedly influenced by writers like rilke, robert walser, par lagerkvist - and i remember during my final thesis meeting with the entire faculty, he badgered me about the text - not so much the content, as much as i think he was kind of disgusted with the connotations of the 19th century style, and i remember in the midst some of the other professors discussing the work in academic terms, he blurted out: “i don’t know why you didn’t write it in surfer talk.”
at the time, i figured he was just trying to push my buttons and steer the conversation somewhere else, but in the end, his comment began to weigh on me, and i realized he was, once again, trying to get me to realize that a certain kind of preciousness can be dangerous, debilitating, and growth stunting... a very important lesson that enabled the work to move forward... and i have no doubt that there is a large group of former students who are now better artists for having worked with him.
i first saw his work when i was a student at otis, probably around 1983, and a group of us went to see a show of his work at rosamund felsen. we were completely blown way by this concoction of paintings related to plato, the rothko chapel, rainbow afro wigs, stoner imagery, abraham lincoln, etc. and then there was the way one had to navigate to enter the installation... by laying down on the floor and shimmying beneath a painting, in order to end up in a space that was essentially a visual clusterf-ck. while at first it all simply seemed like he was taking the piss at gallery conventions and upending one’s expectations (all of which it did!); but it also offered a bunch of wide-eyed newbies an alternative path - for this was way beyond any kind of conventional commercial gallery experience that any of us had ever had. while i admit that i had no idea what the hell i was looking at - the whole thing reeked of a complex web of decisions - and the objects themselves were belligerent while at the same time kicking some serious butt, especially to a youngster who had entered art school through the back door of the punk scene. what appealed to me most was that this work was how it seemed to be bucking the status quo, and how the work made sure that people would be unable to offer a casual response.
kelley's work always resonated with a deep sense of tension and conflict - generally snubbing its nose at you on the outside, while offering a rich space of provocation, rejection, exploration and ultimately resonance on the inside. no matter the initial response, there was always this slow and layered conversation that would ensue after seeing the work... (just like the studio visits). i never walked away from the a show of his work without thinking about it for a long time... although there was always a reckoning before an embrace.
we also shared a music connection - and although i left the punk scene for quieter realms, there was still this shared consciousness of the residue of having been part of it... offering a great mistrust of “the system” as a whole. i'm sure that his ascension to the highest levels of a world that was once truly alternative and is now simply commercial (or in truth, simply commerce) was filled with conflict, even though he clearly rose to prominence on his own terms.
more than anything, i’ll never forget seeing him perform with destroy all monsters, screaming the go go gopher song as loud as he possibly could, over and over again, while pounding the hell out of a big marching band drum - walking back and forth across the stage somewhere between an angry 6 year old and a shaman, fully immersed, fully possessed.
he was a presence that will most definitely be missed!
Labels: mike kelley