Well, hello again. Back so soon? I knew you couldn’t wait for my next installment of feverish Mike Kelley adoration.
A quick reminder for those of you with short memories or at least blacked-out during the introduction of my previous essay (It’s been known to happen): I am constructing a genealogy of Mike Kelley’s art, trying to flesh out a lineage of trash aesthetics related to decadence, investigations into memory, dissonance and blue-collar detritus. While I’m certainly not posing that Kelley was consciously influenced by these figures, I see similarities in their creative outputs, similarities that, at least for me, illuminate Kelley’s complex, astounding and at times, overwhelming artistic legacy as seen in his current retrospective at MoMA PS1.
Now, let’s begin. Are you ok, Mary? You look a little faint-well, reread the last post and come back if you’re going to make me explain it all again. Ok, grab a Bloody Mary and…
Mike Kelley Was John Waters
I know…I know what you’re thinking: Emily, you compare everyone to John Waters. Well, yes, but shut your mouth, the comparison is apt. Not only reveling in similar disposable low-class trash aesthetics, Kelley, like Prince of Puke filmmaker John Waters, does not use these filthy materials to raise up low art forms, but to pervert and sully the upper class art world and high art institutions.
While I previously compared Kelley’s use of decaying everyday materials to 19th century decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud, there is one important distinction between Kelley and Rimbaud, which was pointed out by my trusty partner in crime and fellow Filthy Dreams co-founder Marion: class. Rather than coming from the upper classes to revel in the debased and decay like Rimbaud, Kelley originates from blue-collar Detroit, making his use of these kitsch materials a product of his lower class upbringing.
Like John Waters who draws from his origins in Baltimore, or as he refers to it, the “Hairdo Capital of the World,” Kelley’s use of filthy stuffed animals, ratty afghans, comic strip influences and a fair amount of macrame employs the aesthetics of his Rust Belt hometown.
My comparison between John Waters and Mike Kelley would certainly come to no surprise to either artist, as both were fans of each others’ work. John Waters was also a large collector of Kelley’s artwork, mentioning it frequently in his writings on contemporary art.
In his book Role Models, John Waters discusses Kelley’s aesthetic, as well as his use of disgusting dolls. Referring to Kelley’s art as one of his “roommates,” Waters writes, “Yes, the man who made pitiful seem sexy by turning grimy thrift store stuffed animals into heartbreakingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful sculptures by placing them on stained blankets on the floor or facedown on card tables next to one another like dead Jonestown suicide cultists. Suddenly a museum or an art gallery took on the appearance of a coroner’s office displaying corpses of toys after an airplane crashed into Santa’s sleigh mid-flight on Christmas Eve” (241).
Not only did Waters write about Kelley, describing Kelley’s work far more hilariously than I could ever attempt, but Kelley also delved into John Waters’ filth aesthetic in his essay “Cross Gender/Cross Genre,” illuminating not only Waters’ use of trash but his own.
As Kelley observes, “In the films of John Waters, by contrast, while no vestige of hippie remains, there is a similar play with gender slippage in the figure of the grotesque ‘drag queen’ Divine, who could never be mistaken for a woman. Waters celebrates ‘queerness’ for its abject nature relative to dominant American society. One need not search for an outside aesthetic in his films, because ‘you,’ the supposedly empathic viewer, already represent the other. The negative connotations of being ‘artistic’—that is pathological—are presented in Waters’s films in a completely unsublimated manner. The freakish characters in his films were not designed to just be laughed at; they are, in a sense, role models. His are low comedies with no ascendant intentions and no redeeming social value—the are post avant-garde and proto-punk” (104-5).
While Kelley analyzes John Waters fabulously sleazy films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, he could also be speaking about his own art, including his statements about “abject nature relative to dominant American society,” as well as John Waters’ films lack of “ascendant intentions.”
Looking at Kelley’s installation “Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites,” this relation between Kelley and Waters’ trash aesthetic becomes clearer. In “Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites,” Kelley hangs several balls consisting of similarly colored thrift store throwaway stuffed animals. With paws, tails and ears sticking out from these giant hanging forms, the masses are surrounded by minimalist-looking, wall-mounted sculptures, which spray deodorant, sanitizing the stuffed animals and the art viewers. Playing with the notions of minimalism, conceptual art and the sanitized space of a white-walled gallery, Kelley’s “Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites” never surpasses its low-class trash materials.
Many critics have, I think wrongly, understood Kelley’s use of trash and blue-collar aesthetics as a means to raise up, celebrate and validate these materials as a high art form, legitimizing it in the eyes of the exclusive and hierarchical art world. However, I, and Kelley himself, see his use of dirty toys, autograph dogs and sock dolls to pervert these institutions and the pretension of high art, soiling the institutions much like his greasy dolls.
With “Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites,” no matter how much Kelley constructs a conceptual and minimalist scenario, the absurdity of these mass-produced stuffed animals with their splayed paws cannot be overcome. Like Kelley’s view of John Waters, they have “no ascendant intentions and no redeeming social value.”
Discussing his use of materials, Kelley states, “Yes, in my work I play overtly with various aesthetics traditions. In art school I was trained in the modernist tradition, yet I felt compelled to return again and again to materials associated with my lower middle class upbringing, to reexamine those materials from a critical vantage point. At the time, I thought about this through the politics of camp. In retrospect, my strategies seem more closely linked to situationist methods of detournement. I do not like the goofiness of the camp sensibility—I have a meaner sense of humor. I was using these traditional materials in an intentionally perverse way—misusing them to reveal their conventionality.” (147).
Like Waters who takes the local filth from his own city to the big screen, not to reveal it as a legitimate source of high art inspiration but to subvert straight, normal culture, Kelley’s employment of debased and demented-looking dolls purposefully and tactically throws it in the face of the upper class art viewers.
Not only are Kelley’s stuffed animal works similar to John Waters’ infliction of the lower classes of Baltimore on his audiences, such as his creation of a Hollywood star out of almost toothless but entirely captivating, Baltimore thrift store owner Edith Massey, but Kelley’s series of “Garbage Drawings” also mirror Waters’ subversive aesthetic.
As John Waters describes, “Right above my writing desk in New York is one of his Garbage Drawings (1988), isolated refuse from the original Sad Sack cartoons that features fumes of filth that I hope will inspire my screenplays or book ideas” (242).
Isolating just the garbage piles from the Sad Sack cartoons, Kelley toys with abstraction, attempting, like “Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites,” to bring mass culture kitsch to the high art institutional environment through masking garbage piles as formalized abstraction. However, with the appearance of a bone or a fly, the illusion is quickly broken and the viewer realizes that they are looking at a pile of actual trash.
As Kelley reveals about the “Garbage Drawings,” “When the garbage is isolated, it becomes specific and may even be seen as ordered, itself; thus formalized, it loses its transgressive nature. The abject signification of the drawings is also threatened by the addition to the series of an imposter: a bush that looks the same as the garbage.” (16).
Losing its immediate abject edge, the drawings somehow become even more subversive with their hidden garbage, infiltrating the hallowed halls of major institutions like MoMA PS1. The Pope of Trash would be so proud.
Remember how I said this was going to be a two-part series? You don’t?! Do you listen to anything I say? Well, brace yourselves, this has now turned into a three-parter. What’s Filthy Dreams anyway without a little excessive gushing. Stay tuned for the next essay soon…