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

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

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?

A: No, because I am my childhood. You can try to get beyond your childhood and I struggle to do it, but if you had a bad childhood, you’re stuck. With my rational mind I’m against all I was raised to be, but on a deeper level I’ve been programmed to feel it’s normal to be cold, repressed and removed, because my family wasn’t at all demonstrative. I was depressed about this when I was younger but no longer am--I got bored with being depressed.

Q: What’s your fondest memory of your mother?

A: Why pick on my mother? (Extremely long silence.) My mother worked in a liquor store and once she took me to work with her and I got to sit around the liquor store all day, which I thought was fun.

Q: What things played a role in shaping your world view?

A: Catholicism and the class structure. I grew up in the lower-middle class and rebelled against the class system because I saw people of my class as slaves and they loved it and that made me sick. I guess I’m just a moralist and that I transferred the morality of Catholicism into hippie idealism.

Q: Were you a hippie?

A: I was 15 in 1969 and was one of the three hippies at my school, but ideologically, the hippie thing didn’t go too deep with me because I didn’t like the flowery, utopian aspect of it. In Detroit the hippie movement was meaner, though--the Black Panthers were big there.


Q: What was the first artwork that made an impression on you?

A: I didn’t grow up around art so it was probably the Land O’lakes girl--commercial images are the primary art a middle-class American sees. When I was in my early teens, I got into the radical underground--I was into psychedelic posters and underground comics--and began to have a more self-conscious understanding of art, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I took it seriously.

Q: Did you have any mentors or heroes when you were growing up?

A: Iggy Pop and the MC5 were hugely important for me. Like the best Brechtian theater, Iggy represented theater on a grand scale and I’ve never seen anyone control an audience the way he could. He came along at a point when rock had grown completely pompous and he was the antithesis of that. I was jealous of Iggy because the girls went for him even though he played the role of an idiot--he’s like the Jerry Lewis of rock. The art world doesn’t know anything about Iggy, because people in the art world don’t know anything about grass-roots culture--all they know is industrial culture. That’s changing now and the art world’s opening up to this kind of material, but when I was in school, it was an uphill struggle to deal with this stuff. Q: Which artists were important for you during the years when you were finding your own creative voice?

A: Oyvind Fahlstrom was a big hero of mine. On the surface his work appeared to be about popular language but it was also rigorously intellectual and when I was young his work struck me as the height of genius. I loved the early work of Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden and Peter Saul, and was very much inspired by the Viennese Actionists.

Q: Much of your work has dealt with the attitudes and ideals of adolescence; how do you feel about your own youth?

A: Our culture sees the loss of youth as something tragic, but I don’t look back on my adolescence with nostalgia, because it was a tragic time for me--you have expectations that can never be fulfilled when you’re young. I can’t say I like getting older, because I don’t--in fact, emotionally I feel about 14 years old--but I haven’t put my teen-age years on a pedestal, nor do I think a teen-age aesthetic is specifically present in my work. It’s there, but I deal with many other things as well--people focus on it because for some reason the culture’s taken an interest in adolescence right now. I’m interested in it because it’s the time when the child struggles to take on the role of the adult--adolescents are kind of like failed adults. Adolescents may be failed adults, but adults are living failures--adults are the apotheosis of failure and that’s why I plan to start doing work about middle age. When you’re an adolescent, there’s at least hope.

Q: How have your attitudes toward sex and romantic love changed over the course of your life?


A: I was such a romantic when I was a teen-ager but I no longer harbor those illusions, because none of my romantic dreams came true and now I view the whole thing as much more mechanical. My fantasy then was of mutual worship with the perfect woman--some kind of Rossetti-type guerrilla girl with a rifle. We all carry around our own private dream of romantic perfection because we’re socialized to do that, but unfortunately those fantasies revolve around trying to make ideology manifest in a person. That presents a problem because people are people--they’re not living concepts.

Q: You once commented that “all giving contains an element of aggression”; can you elaborate on that?

A: The aggression is rooted in the fact that giving means you expect something in return--that’s always true. All relationships are contractual and it’s best to have some idea what those contracts are, otherwise you’re gonna have trouble at some point. I don’t want to sound coldhearted about this, but it seems painfully obvious to me that although human relations are natural, the manner in which they’re acted out is not.

Q: Why did you come to California?

A: Because I needed to go to graduate school and I hated New York and this seemed like the only other option--I wasn’t too wild about CalArts, though. It was highly conceptual when I was there and I found that difficult, and I also felt it was elitist. My blue-collar origins caused me to have a chip on my shoulder about CalArts and New York, which I haven’t gotten over, nor do I want to. Class hatred is what fuels me.

Q: What’s the most widely held misconception about your work?

A: That I make it to shock and outrage people, that it’s just bratty. That’s changing because people are becoming aware that what I do is conscious and that I’m not just some nut cranking stuff out.

Q: Much of your work has explored the ways in which we project our emotional lives onto inanimate forms such as stuffed animals so that we can experience our feelings from a safe remove (in his work Kelley refers to this process as “empathy displacement”). In discussing this behavioral tic, you’ve commented that “the more you empathize with something the more you don’t see it for what it is, because you see it as you.” That comment suggests you think that at the root of human consciousness is unbridled narcissism. True?


A: Yes. People are hopelessly egotistical and aren’t capable of being interested in anything they can’t relate to as themselves on some level. The thing I find troubling about projecting our emotional lives onto objects is that the discourse surrounding the object can confuse you as to what your experience was, and can actually convince you that your experience was the pre-coded experience society lays on these objects.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the genesis of the stuffed-animal work?

A: It started out as a one-shot thing, but once I got some stuffed animals together I realized I didn’t understand them at all and that I’d hit on a rich area. I don’t consider that the best work I’ve done, but it’s been my most critically acclaimed work and I think a lot of people like it for the wrong reason--they like it because it’s stuffed animals, it appeals to the child in them and they can romanticize it. I’m working with these materials in an attempt to understand that process of romanticization, but people want to keep their blinders on and they come to the truth kicking and screaming because people prefer to experience things emotionally rather than intellectually. And that’s bad if you don’t think about what the emotions mean.

Q: You’ve described yourself as an anti-classicist; how does that term apply to you?

A: Classical objects are idealized and don’t allow for mistakes and changes, and that’s where life really is. Things that break things down interest me, but this process--which is a metaphor for death--has been eliminated from American society because corporate culture is based on creating a fear of things breaking down so people will always buy new things. In early America that wasn’t the case--people used to have photographs of their dead babies hanging in their houses, so obviously this aversion to decay and death is a fairly recent development.

Q: How do you feel about being American?

A: Increasingly I don’t like it. We’re living in a period when fundamentalism is at its height, and the violence here shocks me. Violence is built into the traditions of this country, which was founded on rebellion and factionalization, and American capitalism is the most laissez faire, the most “for me only and screw you” in the world. At the moment it looks like the entire system is about to cave in on itself. The most significant change I’ve seen in America during my life is the economic collapse of the past 10 years.

Q: Is the creative impulse rooted in anxiety?

A: Maybe. If you weren’t anxious, you probably wouldn’t feel the need to do anything--you’d just lie there. That sounds good to me.

Q: How has the success you’ve experienced with your work affected you?

A: The fact that people are more receptive to the work doesn’t make it easier, because I’ve never done my work for the audience--in fact, getting positive feedback makes me think I must be doing something wrong. But inevitably my star will go down. Artists usually have a period where they bring in a lot of money, then they go into a slow thing, and the idea of that doesn’t bother me. I don’t care about fine things and dinners and all that crap--I care about thinking about things. For me the ultimate luxury is solitude.


Q: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in your life?

A: Self-doubt. I never doubted my direction, but I doubted my ability to persevere in a public way and I still have problems with that. Being a public person is hard for me. This isn’t to imply there are adoring crowds everywhere I go, because people don’t like artists that much.

Q: Why is it so difficult for us to accept that life may be without a larger meaning?

A: I don’t have a problem with that idea and believe our job is to construct meaning where there is none. Unfortunately, we come into a world where meaning has already been constructed by others so your construction is inevitably at odds with pre-existing ones. Personally I have no tolerance for people who aren’t willing to say maybe their construction is wrong, because I’m certainly willing to say that.

Q: Do you have any sort of spiritual life?

A: When I was a teen-ager I was interested in anything that was extreme so I dallied with spiritual things--I saw some Bible Belt stuff and some people who read auras--but basically I have no spiritual life and spirituality plays no role in my life or work. People are driven to construct a fairy tale they can live by because life is basically so unbearable, and though I’m sure I’d feel better if I found God, I’m a super-moralistic person and I’d rather suffer.

Q: So, spirituality is for saps?

A: Yes.


Christopher Knight reviews a 12-year Mike Kelley survey in London. Page 70