by Keith Banner
A few months back I went to see the Mike Kelley retrospective at the New York City Museum of Modern Art PS 1 space, and I was floored. More than floored actually – more like cosmically overwhelmed. The show was exhaustive and high-style and punk and stupid and hyper-intelligent and mean-spirited and full of love. I could go on.
New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz labeled Kelley’s style back in the day as “cluster-fuck aesthetics,” and the MOMA PS 1 gig truly exemplified that gorgeously dumb-ass pigeonhole while also gleefully escaping it. The show (which came down last month) was a mess and yet it merged grandeur and absurdity into stalwart bliss. It had structure too: a whole side-room dedicated to his sewn-together dirty-stuffed-animal chandeliers and sea-creatures, a whole suite of rooms dedicated to his obsession with Superman’s lost city of origin, a huge loft filled with his stage-sets and video reenactments of photos found in thrift-store yearbooks, and so on. Kelley’s take on life itself was given a protean melancholy carnival-esque requiem, and every inch of gallery space seemed vibrantly necessary even if it was all sprawl. That was the point at the end of the day: decadent blowout stylized into last supper.
Kelley killed himself in 2012, so there’s that too. But also something elegant and fierce spread throughout the PS 1 show, like spilled blood congealed, dried and crystallized into a phantom-zone/fairy-tale that was both inescapably powerful and somehow innocently boy-next-door. The moves from stuffed-toy opera to Joseph-Cornell delicacy, from Robert Rauschenberg bigheadedness to the creepy sweet poetry of a prisoner-to-prisoner love-letter that told a story that you couldn’t tell any other way. Political systems, pedagogy, curation – all of that melted away in the presence of Kelley’s genius, and while the show was actually curated effectively Kelley’s need to push away falsity and common sense, and to glamorize what’s underneath it all, became the crux of not just a show, but a life’s work.
I went around dazed for a couple days afterward.
Flash-forward to my recent visit to New York City, specifically to the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The show is exhaustive and exhausting and haunted by that Kelley spirit, without that same sense of design and frenzy. It has a sort of “cluster-funk aesthetic,” and “funk” meaning moodiness and/or a sort of sour odor, not the musical kind. Going through all the floors of I felt kind of out of focus without having taken any drug: just confronted with a lot of stuff, jangling and shiny and kitschy without any sense of wonder or connection or purpose.
Did David Foster Wallace’s notebooks really need gallery space and attention? He killed himself too, I know, but the remnants of what’s on display only give us a sort of cute little anecdote without allowing access into the mystery of what it means. And the other pieces of art surrounding Wallace’s journals run the gamut from high-art ceramics and paintings and sculptures to stuff made from yarn and newspaper clippings and toys, a never-ending paean to Kelley’s use and misuse of high-art and low-art materials without Kelley’s sense of groundedness, his need to show us the silliness of his seriousness and the seriousness of his silliness.
Without that punk, cluster-fuck narrative connecting all of it, the Whitney Biennial comes off oddly disenchanting, just a survey of what’s been surveyed, not the emperor with no clothes, but the emperor with way too many outfits and disguises and pretensions. I guess it’s too easy to critique a survey of contemporary American art by saying the survey idea is too random and pointless to produce any sort of epiphany or even just plain old bliss – but there you go. That’s what I felt as I went through, how futile the endeavor is, compiling a bunch of art for the sake of taking a cultural temperature. All of this art juxtaposed with this other art so we can see it is art that we need to pay attention to only drains away focus from what the art means and does when it’s not canonized, contained in this way. The wildness inherent in most of what makes up the Biennial turns precious, gets that funky smell.
I withdrew walking through the show. I became an old-fogy.
The one object in this year’s Whitney Biennial that shines through is an abstract painting by Amy Sillman. It is perfection, too simple to be dismissed and too inelegant to be unloved, and lovely in ways you can’t put into words, other than to say it’s just what it is, and by being that it escapes being turned into a rubric of what art in America is supposed to be. Staring into that painting I thought about how nice it would be to be alone with it in a room without anything else, just my eyes and it and thoughtlessness.