You Can’t Phone Home Again
Thoughts on Mike Kelley, Influence, Nineties Teenhood and E.T.
Los Angeles artists have been very aware of the influence of their forebears lately. Pacific Standard Time, the ongoing six-month festival of post-war Southern California art has offered an art lover countless opportunities to experience newly refurbished, re-performed and repurposed historical works from the Big Important Movements of SoCal art: feminist art, light and space, performance art, the “Cool School”, etc. For young artists, there have been many opportunities opening up due to PST, most of which involve collaborating or assisting older artists in the reconstruction of their finest moments. The wisdom of the elders seems to be a recurring theme. So it felt particularly strange and shocking that just at the conclusion of the performance-heavy phase of PST, where quite a few under-appreciated artists whose careers may have seemed dormant for decades were commissioned to update and re-perform works from twenty or thirty years ago and bring them to a new audience, an artist who’s been visible, active, and increasingly relevant and powerful since the late 1970’s should take his own life.
Mike Kelley is responsible for a lot of the artists in L.A. today, and I am but one humble example. He was a larger than life figure in my mind before I moved to Los Angeles. I never knew him, and only met him once in an autograph-seeking fanboy capacity, but once I lived here a few years I came to understand that he had personally touched the lives of many of my colleagues; as an employer, a collaborator, a teacher, a mentor, or a friend. I probably would not have moved to L.A. in the first place if not for Mike Kelley, as all I knew about CalArts when I applied there was that Mike Kelley went there, and I had hopes that whatever he may have got out of the place would rub off on me a little too.
There’s a whole generation of artists in their 20’s and 30’s today who have some variation on the same story. I, like many other alienated/alternative suburban skaters, punks, indie rockers and art damaged teenagers of the ‘90’s, was first exposed to Kelley’s work via the cover for Sonic Youth’s Dirty. As I learned more about him, I came to understand his work as a brand of post-modernism I could actually identify with. It represented a contemporaneous working class American folk culture that was not represented elsewhere. His most popular doll-and-blanket-related works (More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid 1987, Eviscerated Corpse 1989, Dialogue series,1991) had an ineffable pull on myself and many others. From reading Kelley’s writing about his work, it’s now clear that whatever drew me to these pieces had little to do with their intended message or content. It’s something else, and it continues to be a challenge for me to understand. I think some of it had to do with E.T.
I recently re-watched E.T. over a holiday vacation. I was a toddler when the film was released and I mostly remember loving E.T. and crying a lot. This time around, I was struck by how incredibly ugly E.T. is. His presence in drag is not so much adorable as perverse and grotesque; like the hot turd in a babydoll dress in Mike Kelley’s “Swaddling Clothes” of 1986.
I was raised on Steven Spielberg’s imagery of a mythic and sentimental middle class: afghan-covered couches in spacious and dimly lit interiors, splinters of soft electric light through half-opened mini-blinds, a sad-eyed empath goblin hiding amid a horde of mute stuffed toys. Residues of the earth-toned late seventies permeated my early childhood, but by the nineties, the world had gone day-glow and beige. The wilderness in which a young Elliot might find an extraterrestrial in the brush had been bulldozed to make way for a subdivision and a parking lot. In spite of this, I was attached to the relics of the myth of my childhood innocence.
The special resonance Mike Kelley has with me is probably largely accidental. After all, I was born two years after Kelley started grad school at CalArts, so I can hardly presume that there was much commonality in our understanding of the American experience circa 1992. Still, Kelley’s Catholicism-induced project about the crushing debt of love owed to hundreds of anonymous home-crafters of handmade dolls overlapped and conveniently fed into the zeitgeist moment of a generation re-assessing the filth that encrusts a childhood whose comforts don’t so much segue as curdle into an underemployed adulthood. You want the comfort. You want the toys and the afghans, but you also want beer, cigarettes, pot, insight, and your sick sense of humor. You live with all of it and you get this weird, sad mess.
The combined artwork and music in Dirty cements this relationship. It echoes the soft/hard dynamics of a dysfunctional family. Dirty was released in 1992, when I was fourteen years old. At this time I had a bookshelf filled with Garfield and Bloom County comics, orange walls, a giant poster of the cover of the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa featuring a topless flamenco dancer, which my brother perversely presented to me one Christmas morning, and a poster of Robert Smith from The Cure wearing a floral printed blouse. My closet was filled with abandoned cartoon drawings from elementary school, stuffed animals I was too embarrassed to keep on display and too attached to throw out, back-issues of Muppet magazine, retired Masters of the Universe figures, and a couple of lingerie catalogues I stole from my neighbor’s mailbox. The soul of my closet was one of great melancholy and abject grotesquery; a sad-eyed empath goblin would feel right at home.
The cover of Dirty was a grubby homemade doll, with more crusty stuffed toys pictured inside as well as a creepy dude with long hair, acne, and his shirt buttoned all the way up. I later realized this guy was Mike Kelley. The musicwas atonal guitar skronks and feedback, paired with 4/4 beats and pop hooks. The comforts of childhood, the messy disaster of adolescence, the conflicted consciousness of the suburban weirdo, all brought together in a sickly sweet stew. The symbiosis of Kelley’s visuals and the aesthetics of the noise-pop instrumentation led me to respect the thing as a statement; a work from “out there”(New York City, Los Angeles), which recognized the particularities, the twisted psychic space “in here”—-in my suburban American teenhood.
Unlike Hollywood, or MTV, or even Sonic Youth itself, Kelley did not romanticize the various cultural vernaculars he mined, nor did he exploit them for trendsetting purposes. He thoroughly investigated and deconstructed his material, bringing his full intelligence and razor sharp wit to bear on his subjects. In the process he unearthed a gold mine of psychic dysfunction in popular and domestic culture. He found the soul of phallic violence at the heart of Sad Sack comics, reconsidered the naive gestural abstraction in his own undergraduate paintings, and extrapolated ornate micro-narratives, absurd yet gripping poetry, and a cornucopia of Americana pastiches from photographs of extracurricular student activities in a high school yearbook. His projects were often tongue in cheek, but executed with a rigor that transcends the “low” origins and reveals great insights into the idiosyncratic forms of expression most art discourse ignores. He brought energy and integrity to a seemingly profane and pathetic range of subject matter. To me, he was an artistic model and a consistent inspiration.
There’s a stretch in E.T. where Elliott’s health and mindset is inexplicably linked to that of E.T. When E.T. is dying, Elliott is deathly ill as well, and is separated from the alien by the Secret Service or whatever for his own protection. When E.T. “dies” and is put in some kind of CIA space-coffin, Elliott has regained his strength, and the first thing that kid does is bang on E.T.’s coffin and profess his love. Influence is a tricky thing. It builds you up, shows you a range of possibilities you didn’t think possible, but too much of it can kill you. And unlike E.T., when earthlings die, they don’t get reception from the mother ship and pop back to life. They are gone and there’s nothing left for a kid to do but actually grow up.
John Patrick Hogan, February 2012