Los Angeles

Mike Kelley

A goofily odd statue of John Glenn made out of “memory ware” (found fragments of family china, path-colored glass, etc.) towered over John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (Including the Local Culture Pictorial Guide, 1968–1972, Wayne Westland Eagle), 2001, a sprawling affair that was the centerpiece of Black Out, Mike Kelley's superb, expansive installation (first realized for the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition “Artists Take on Detroit: Projects for the Tricentennial,” 2001). The Glenn totem—based on a plaster sculpture in the library of Kelley's high school and delicately encrusted in broken glass with choice areas (e.g., the former Ohio senator's butt) barnacled darkly—stood between two intersecting platforms on which were displayed collected glass shards, ceramic debris, spark plugs, nails, and so on, organized in a subtly graduated rainbow (clear, white, green, blue, etc.). Each platform ended in big display cabinets with vertical drawers you could pull out to examine a photographic archive of Kelley's research on “culture” as it appeared in his suburban Detroit hometown newspapers from 1968 through 1972, the period, as Kelley wrote in a short essay to accompany the exhibition, “from when I first developed an interest in fine art to the time I moved away from home.” The photographed newspaper clippings were arranged to suggest formal and thematic links between hippies, head shops, scary clowns, weekly cafeteria menus, craft fairs, sock hops, local bands, weird drama club goings-on, and drug warnings for parents. Alongside the show's other works—botched photos intended to document the Detroit River shoreline and the sculpture in the backyard of one of Kelley's teachers; staged documentary photos tracking the Land O'Lakes Girl; an actual documentary suite concerning the environs of Kelley's childhood home; and Lingam and Yoni, 2002, a set of eight sculptures (named after islands in the Detroit River) made of dirt and detritus “scavenged” from their namesakes—Kelley's archives make my brain and heart hurt.

In grappling with this overwhelming installation, the viewer would do well to view Black Out as a project related to but vaster, funnier, and more rigorous than the auto-archivization of Duchamp's notes assembled in the Green and White Boxes (Kelley replaces chance runic missives with systematized newspaper clippings and photography); or to think of Dieter Roth's gonzo files and funky accumulations. The newspaper clippings in the Local Culture Pictorial Guide point to a precedent far closer to home: A clipping announcing the opening of a Warhol show at “The Gallery, on the seventh floor of Hudson's Downtown Detroit store” notes that “much of the inspiration for his earlier works came from such simple everyday items as newspaper pages, match covers, multiple images of glass labels, Coke bottles.” Consider cookie-jar-“folk art”-loving Warhol disemboweling the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art in 1969 for Raid the Icebox 1—all the shoes, the stacks of paintings, the return of the aesthetic's and the institution's repressed. Now imagine an artist applying the same procedure to his own life and work.

Is memory form or content, connection or rupture? “'Photography,' Joe points out, ‘is the only media in which you can easily place yesterday and today side by side.'” The Joe in question is Joe Clark, “Detroit's internationally known photographer and illustrator.” A photograph of an article from the Wayne/Westland Eagle featuring Mr. Clark, “Photo Show Portrays the Familiar,” is used as the frontispiece for a sequence of twenty-five black-and-White documentary-style photos of locales on islands in the Detroit River and sites and sightings in and around the neighborhood where Kelley grew up: the Eloise Mental Hospital; Zug Island; the Kelleys’ house in Westland, MI; a glass test tube containing “Edison's Last Breath” at the Henry Ford Museum. Interested in the systemization of styles, how styles (“looks”) produce different meanings and forms (craftwork; Cubism), Kelley is not afraid of gently ironizing recognizable styles—to funny and moving ends. Given the rampant Becherization of contemporary photography, Photo Show Portrays the Familiar, 2001, is, arguably, the work that looks the most like “art,” but it lays bare the vaunted “conceptual” values of the school of Becher by querying what photographed subject isn't (or doesn't become) “conceptual” or “meaningful.”

Within the photo of Edison's last breath, a card next to the glass tube alerts the viewer: “It is alleged that Henry Ford asked Thomas A. Edison's son, Charles, to collect an exhaled breath from the lungs of Ford's dying hero and friend. This test tube was found at Ford's Fair Lane Mansion, along with Edison's hat and shoes, after Clara Ford's death in 1950.” The geography of memory, repressed and otherwise; the totemic power of the familiar; the spiritual investment in heroes and mentors, fact and fiction; the deployment of the autobiographical not as confession but as a method of aesthetic formalization, a formalization not without ideological ramifications: The past is no more intractable than the future or the present—and no less. Kelley proves Mr. Clark a little off the mark by using other media in addition to photography to consider time and memory, placing “yesterday and today side by side.” How and why does one become who one is because of where one came from? There's a clipping of a teenage Kelley accepting a prize, along with collaborator Ed Gills, for a crude, parodic patriotic number bearing the words YOUR LAND AND MINE, made for a VFW Auxiliary poster contest. What would Ed make of Mike's “memory ware” statue, of his surveying the old stomping grounds? He might say Black Out is Kelley's most personal aesthetic catechism to date. He might say it's nostalgie de la boue, uh, to the max.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.