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ART : The Taboo Artist : Mike Kelley, irreverent explorer of childhood sexuality and cultural repression, talks about life, love and the release of the id

July 05, 1992|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Artist Mike Kelley has always had a problem with authority. As a kid growing up in Detroit, his father encouraged his compulsively defiant son to "act more normal." Kelley's response was to learn to sew and stitch together a doll that he lovingly laid on his bed.

There's a clear link between that juvenile delinquent prank and the work the 37-year-old artist makes today. Take his recently published book, "Reconstructed History," for instance. A lavishly bound volume fashioned in the manner of a high school yearbook, "Reconstructed History" is a collection of found illustrations from high school history texts crudely defaced with scatological scribblings of the sort favored by American teen-agers.

Kelley's affection for the vandalized icon is traceable to his childhood in a blue-collar neighborhood where he never quite fit in. A natural-born anarchist, Kelley says he's always gravitated toward the outrageous and extreme, and his taste for the experimental brought him west in the mid-'70s where he enrolled at CalArts--then deep in the throes of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Though Kelley graduated in 1978, he was at odds with the curriculum during his years there, as his interests had little to do with the art trends of the '70s. Today, however, the art world has caught up with Kelley, who's seen as having played an instrumental role in opening up a rich thematic terrain previously considered taboo.

Exploring sexual anxiety, the hypocrisy of organized religion and politics and the self-serving sentimentality that passes itself off as romantic love, his work is scathingly irreverent toward just about everything. He's done several bodies of works examining the transformation of soiled stuffed animals into receptacles for emotions society prefers we not act out ourselves, and other series have looked at childhood sexuality, the similarity between the creative and the criminal impulse, and the subtext in kitsch craft objects made by hobbyists.

Kelley's work is at once vauntingly intellectual and anti-elitist in the rigorous analytical gaze it brings to bear on white-trash culture. Referencing a disparate range of influences that includes philosopher Georges Bataille, Freud, Iggy Pop, cartoonist R. Crumb, filmmaker Luis Bunuel and Charles Manson, Kelley's is above all an outsider's aesthetic, and it's surprising it's been so well-received by the inner sanctum of the art world.

First making a name for himself in the early '80s as a performance artist, Kelley has moved fluidly from one medium to the next and has no real signature material. Regardless of the form it takes, his work is invariably an expression of protest against a culture of people socialized into unknowing submission and terrified of freedom. Kelley's central and recurring theme is repression, what it does to people, and the collective id that longs to be unleashed.

Question: What's your earliest memory?

Answer: Being in a blanket and being tossed up by my brothers and sisters. It was scary, but I wasn't totally upset about it.

Q: Does fear play a constructive role in your life and work?

A: I'm attracted to frightening things because I'm a fearful person--I am fear so I have to face fear all the time because I want to get past it. I can't run from it, because then I wouldn't be anywhere.

Q: Do you remember your childhood fondly?

A: I don't know if there's anything to remember. I was born in Detroit, the youngest in a family of four children. My brothers and sisters were much older than me so I was sort of like an only child--a mistake. My parents were pretty old when I was born and they were very religious, conservative and emotionally repressed. My father was a Depression-era person who had to work hard and he was in charge of maintenance for a school system. They raised me in the Catholic Church, but from the time I was a child, I thought Catholicism stunk--I always hated it. I grew up feeling abnormal because I was born into the wrong environment and it took me a long time to discover I was a normal person. I wasn't social when I was young and always felt like I was the only person on Earth--I felt like I was insane because I lived in a world that purported to be "normal" and I just couldn't do it.

Q: Obviously the structure of the American family didn't work for you, as it hasn't for many people. Why doesn't it work?

A: Because families are self-contained ideological units that don't allow for change. That this has become an unworkable setup isn't peculiar to our times--it's never worked as far as I can tell and I think most cultures struggle with this problem. And the fact that we live in such a huge, diverse culture has exacerbated the problem.

Q: Do you feel free of the conflicts that plagued you as a child?

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