Mike Kelley in Los Angeles: MOCA Tribute and Tipton Way, text by Siofra McSherry
Mike Kelley’s sudden death in Los Angeles earlier this year led to an outpouring of grief and affection among those who valued his contribution to contemporary art and music, and in Los Angeles particularly those who knew and missed the artist himself. Recalling how instrumental Kelley had been to the LA art scene’s relevance and vibrancy, MOCA curator Paul Schimmel described him as ‘an intellectual force of nature, a real catalyst for a whole generation of artists.’ Anguish at the artist’s apparent suicide very quickly took form in various tributes across Los Angeles and beyond. On the 25th February, twenty-four hours of Mike Kelley videos played at the north LA Farely Building in an event the curators named ‘For the Love of Mike’, a spontaneous tribute by LA artists and fans appeared near the artist’s studio in Highland Park, and MOCA hastily put together their own Tribute consisting of twenty three Kelley pieces from their collection alongside several works by other artists, which Kelley had donated to the museum. The tribute was assembled quickly from the pieces MOCA already possessed, and thus the show lacks the curatorial coherence of a planned retrospective. This leads to a scattergun approach that in some ways allows each piece to stand in isolation. There is a wide selection of Kelley’s work, periods and styles on show here, details from his seminal ‘Monkey Island’ installation (1982-3) to the mid-nineties ‘Silver Ball’.
In ‘Monkey Island,’ supposedly inspired by a visit to the Los Angeles zoo, simple forms, such as two circles, become obscene symbols by comparison with the buttocks of monkeys. Obscene images become, conversely, formal and elegant by means of abstraction, or juxtaposition with images of insect eyes and landscape. The obscene, Kelley’s ‘adolescent cosmology’ floats in and out of focus throughout the installation, with its explicit comic-style graphics reminiscent of Robert Crumb. Science fiction B-movies are recalled by the gnomic Silver Ball, a large foil and chicken-wire ball that appears before apparent offerings of plastic fruit. The mock-up alien appears to be having a giggle at the expense of Scientologists and UFOlogists, as well as patchily, provisionally fulfilling our desire for the mystical, the extraordinary, and the otherworldly. The latter part of the exhibition served to show how influential Kelley was in shaping and curating not only the MOCA collection but art in Southern California. There are strong pieces in evidence here such as Marnie Weber’s Brown Bear (1959), a taxidermied bear in a funny hat, which like much of Kelley’s own work oscillates between amusing and creepy.
Residents of Highland Park fulfilled their desire for a sacred space in Kelley’s honour by reconstructing his 1987 work ‘More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid’ in a disused driveway close to his studio. An anonymous fan painted the initial mural and set up a facebook group inviting others to add materials resembling those that made up the original Kelley piece. Crocheted rugs, dirty stuffed animals and candles appeared around the walls of the memorial site, along with affecting personal messages from those who knew the artist or wanted to express what his work had meant to their own practice. A ‘Destroy All Monsters’ pterodactyl celebrated Kelley’s work with the underground noise band. This reconstruction was perhaps an even greater fulfilment of Kelley’s messy, thrift-store, salvaged aesthetic in ‘More Love Hours’ - the provenance of these objects was as diverse as the people who came to the site, and their appearance was motivated by gratitude and affection. The evidence of these many love hours has now been removed from the site and handed over to the Mike Kelley Foundation in the hope of preserving and perhaps permanently displaying the memorial. The muralled walls may still be seen on Tipton Way.