Mike Kelley’s Multiplicity

by David Mather
Date Published: March 6, 2015
Production still from <em>Gym Interior (Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #10, 21, 214)</em>, 2004-05. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All rights reserved/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Production still from Gym Interior (Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #10, 21, 214), 2004-05. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All rights reserved/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

To take my work at face value as a proclamation of some kind of belief system is impossible, I’d say. —Mike Kelley, 20051

In the phantasmagorical media production and complicated installations that constitute the massive Day Is Done project, Mike Kelley multiplies and manipulates subject positions across visual, musical, textual, and performance-based activities, which combine to form a mutant version of the 19th-century Gesamtkunstwerk. The interplay among characters, musical and theatrical activities, and diverse material practices—a set of compositional strategies that might be termed performative materialism—can be understood as an epic iteration of the artist’s reliance on multiple authorial voices. In hindsight, it is possible to appreciate the significance of Kelley’s authorial multiplicity by analyzing his writings, for it is now clear they inhabit the center of his creative practices. Impressive in scope, quality, and number, the texts he produced during a 35-year period explore a variety of authoring techniques, and they creep into a range of genres or subgenres that cover monologue, artist statement, memoir, song lyrics, psychological case study, well-researched scholarship, and pseudo-academic concatenation. In text after text, a splitting or drifting viewpoint underscores a distinctly narrative dimension that extends to Kelley’s career.

In storytelling media such as novels, plays, films, or comic books, a fallible or unreliable narrator might introduce degrees of uncertainty that an audience can readily distinguish from the convictions of an author. Such narrative structures often manifest variations in the plot that are attributable to a narrator’s misperception, impairment, accident, or even mendacity. No similar distinction exists for the visual arts, and the term artist typically refers to both the actual maker (i.e., author) and any persona adopted for the purpose of making or presenting works (i.e., narrator). By generally precluding this kind of authorial distance, there’s an unspoken guarantee of creative authenticity, not as a literal certification of provenance, but rather as an assurance about the conviction or sincerity of the maker. So deeply rooted are certain presumptions about creative expression—whether divined, emitted, or, more literally, secreted—it still verges on profanity to suggest an artist might not be entirely earnest in presenting supposedly deeper or higher truths.2 In Kelley’s sprawling creative efforts over nearly 40 years, many of the assumptions about “pure” artistic expressivity have been subverted or abandoned. At the same time, a key conceptual premise for this systematic unsettling of artistic truths derives from a commitment to shifting authorial structures.

Kelley drew from an astounding range of sources—popular, sub- and countercultural, historical, contemporary, academic, and esoteric—and, as a polymath of perversity, he considered the prosaic details of late-20th-century American life, as much as he explored larger questions of human perception, belief, and understanding.3 The retrospective exhibit organized by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in cooperation with the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, and presented at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA PS1 in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, gathers an important cross section of his projects but still represents only a fraction of his profuse performative, written, and sculptural output. To map Kelley’s thematic, formal, stylistic, and methodological complexities will no doubt be an arduous task for literary, art, and cultural historians. Someone might eventually index the formal and conceptual strategies he borrowed from 20-century artists and movements, which would include among others: futurist noisemaking, Dadaist collage and provocation, Duchampian deadpan and readymades, surrealist objets trouvés and abjection, Abstract Expressionism’s heroic formalism, Situationist International’s absurdity and critique, Pop’s insouciant appropriations, Conceptualism’s rules and procedures, and Art & Language’s feigned objectivity. Similar to Francis Picabia, who moved easily among visual styles over the course of his career and against the grain of prevailing attitudes, Kelley developed a set of adaptable compositional strategies that embraced a methodological promiscuity that renders any list of stylistic qualities incomplete.4

<em>Perspectaphone</em>, 1978. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All rights reserved/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Perspectaphone, 1978. Art © Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All rights reserved/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

From the time that Kelley began performing in the 1970s—first with the sonic ensemble Destroy All Monsters and later in his spoken-text performance pieces—he was ventriloquizing an eclectic mix of rhetorical positions and performative attitudes, not necessarily linked to his personal beliefs.5 In effect, he was already experimenting with the shifts in authorial voice that anchor his mobile subject positions. As a graduate student at CalArts in the late ’70s, Kelley consciously rejected the rule-based approaches of Minimalism and Conceptualism, the reductivism of which he found overly restrictive.6 As his creative methods defied common notions of art’s sacred and moralistic qualities, he gravitated toward materials and themes that were excluded from the then-dominant styles. Committed to skewering engrained ideas about art’s capacity to render truth, whether aesthetic, moral, social, historical, or otherwise, he worked out a loose system that borrowed and reconfigured a diverse set of aesthetic strategies.

Kelley’s complex formal and conceptual layering worked in tandem with and fed into an incredible range of thematic content, which frequently revolved around permutations of psychic and social repressions, as well as an unusual assortment of counterrepressive gestures. By traversing historical referentiality, intentional distortion, scholarly depth, popular forms, and unrepentant weirdness, his works formulate a complicated system for staging extended sieges on culturally reified forms. Kelley’s eclectic multi-visuality embodies a kind of carnivalesque behavior, which emerges during the loosening of moral constraints in various historical and contemporary folk traditions.7 His system of counterintuitive assertions and uncomfortable inclusions supplies a series of well-aimed flares into the dark psychosocial landscape of late-20-century Western subjectivity. Yet underlying the complexities of his work and irrespective of medium, strategy, style, or content was Kelley’s recurring willingness to mix, distort, and ventriloquize multiple personae.

Efforts to formulate alternate artistic identities are a recurring trope found in the visual arts of the 20th century, including the pseudonyms and disguises of figures as disparate as Marcel Duchamp, Eleanor Antin, and Cindy Sherman. But if these artists assumed different personalities, Salvador Dalí foregrounded the psychic condition of the maker in the “paranoid critical method,” introducing another degree of disturbance into the creative process. Even as the Spanish surrealist adeptly performed his role as “mad artist,” his works across media remain more or less stylistically unified. Like Dalí, Kelley adopted strategies and techniques for generating psychic distortions during the making and presenting of works. Although it’s true he made use of disguises and pseudonyms, as well as mimicked altered mental states, Kelley, more important, wrenched open the conceptual space between his own identity and the imaginary perspectives from which to conceptualize, fabricate, enact, and present works. What he accomplished was to expand significantly the perceived relationship between the person of the artist and artistic persona.

Over the years, the most significant misinterpretations of Kelley’s works have revolved around an apparent lack of appreciation for his shifting authorial voice. In response to the stuffed animal pieces of the late ’80s and early ’90s, for instance, several critics falsely asserted that the artist was motivated by his own repressed sexual trauma. Kelley consistently rejected attempts to correlate his art making with his biography or personality, and this was particularly true for those critics who labeled him a “bad boy” or an “outlaw.”8 Attributing these labels to the artist himself overlooked the fact that, in addition to being rebellious, sacrilegious, creepy, and playful, his works can be smart, tolerant, analytical, and informed. The interpretive error is to presume a maker is not capable of exploring the aesthetic possibilities of found materials irrespective of his or her personal convictions or emotive responses.9 To reject this correlation is also to release the artworks from a requirement to reflect an artist’s own tastes.

Kelley’s method of destabilizing the linkages between person and persona shares some features with narrative modes that are taken to be distinct from an author’s lived experiences.10 Another type of destabilized narration derives from multiple, distinct voices being integrated within one work or series of works, relying not on one narrator but on many. Bakhtin designated such a narrative structure with multiple voices by a term that might be translated from Russian as heteroglossia or multivocality.11 In Kelley’s work, multiple voices emerged most obviously in works written for different actors, as in the series Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction. Although Bakhtin’s ideas of hybridization and multiplicity do not necessarily imply unstable or unreliable narration, neither do they preclude this sort of layering and ironic distancing. For the sake of brevity, several of Kelley’s distinct strategies—fictional personae, hybrid utterances, and multiple voices—can be gathered under the generalized heading of unstable authorship.

In project after project, Kelley’s viewpoints proliferate, shift, and dissolve, sometimes interrupting each other or cycling through moods and other psychic fluctuations. Here’s a representative sample of the authorial layering techniques found in his writings:

In a text that accompanies The Poltergeist (1979), a collaborative text-image work with David Askevold, Kelley runs through a series of associations about ecstatic, altered, and diseased mental states, correlated with photographs of a purportedly adolescent spiritualist medium, played by Kelley himself.

In his statement about the video The Banana Man (1983), the artist outlines the motivation behind his dramatic impressions of a comedic figure, which, due to his own lack of firsthand experience, were based on his childhood friends’ descriptions of that character.

In “Urban Gothic” (1985), free-associational tone shifts among first-person narration, anonymous commentary, and informed scholarship revolve around the theme of industrial landscapes.

In the text accompanying Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), Kelley plays with and against the notion that artists are quasi-criminal or quasi-spiritual, or both.

For his book Reconstructed History (1989), Kelley invented a story about finding drawings by high school students in used history textbooks, though he made the drawings himself.

In “Filmic Regression” (1992), spectatorial regression is thought to be predicated on the disengagement of the viewers’ critical awareness through a willful suspension of disbelief.

Making use of a pseudo-academic style, “Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny” (1993) skips among topics and associations related to historical material often considered déclassé by aficionados of fine art.

He collects a series of outlandish interpretations of children’s paintings, mimicking the prose of psychology case studies, in “We Communicate Only Through Our Shared Dismissal of the Prelinguistic” (1995).

For “Timeless/Authorless: Four Recovered Memories” (1995), the artist presents largely fictionalized accounts of supposedly recovered memories from his past.

Kelley investigates UFO sightings and alien abductions in “The Aesthetics of Ufology” (1997/2002), speculating about the shared psychological fears and desires that such cultural narratives reveal.

“A Stopgap Measure” (1999) imitates a sociopolitical rant and facetiously proposes a form of collective psychosexual therapy that relies on celebrities.

In “Cross Gender/Cross Genre (1999), he emphasizes the shifting gender identifications of well-known and less-well-known cultural figures from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Even when the writer takes a thoughtful and measured tone, for instance, as a cultural commentator, his material probes non-normative or irrational behaviors, as well as experimental or extrasensory conditions, and it inhabits the same liminal territory, in which individual subjectivity as an a priori quality of experience and narration has been thrown into question.

An impetus for Kelley’s use of fictional characters, hybrid and multiple voices, and narrative instability may have been his long-standing affinity for psychology research.12 In a 2005 interview, Kelley recalled reading as a teen the psychologist R.D. Laing, who, according to the artist, was “one of the writers most influential on my work.”13 As part of a resurgent interest, particularly in the U.S., in the field of humanistic psychology and forming an important intellectual and academic platform for psychological and psychosocial experiments that informed progressive cultural movements in the ’60s and ’70s, Laing’s approach to mental illness hinged on the notion that, while normative systems of behavior are mainly responsible for labeling select individuals as dysfunctional, most social institutions could likewise be deemed dysfunctional. Along with this criticism of mental health diagnoses, Laing underscored the socially constructed or arbitrary qualities of all belief systems.14 Across Kelley’s writings and performances, as well as in many of his images and installations, there is a similar sense of the pervasiveness and promiscuity of psychic drives and desires, alongside which comes a critical awareness of the capacity to disassociate oneself from false beliefs and to embrace what was previously considered false.15 This fluid sense of what composes “reality”—that all beliefs are to some extent fictionalized—runs through the artist’s textual, visual, sonic, and sculptural works. Akin to Laing’s critique of sociocultural normativity, Kelley’s conceptual and formal multiplicity manifests a remarkable tolerance for malleable, at times dysfunctional, subject positions, which flourish in the conceptual gaps between the person of the artist and his personae.


David Mather is Assistant Professor of Early 20th-Century and Interwar European Art in the Art Department at Stony Brook University (SUNY Stony Brook). Previously, he was the inaugural Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Department of Architecture, in association with the Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST). Prior to that, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Getty Research Institute. He is currently completing a book-length study on early Italian futurism.