Better Than: Listening to your drunk coworkers debate which Superbowl commercials disappointed them.
When Mike Kelley, 57, was found dead of an apparent suicide in the bathtub of his Los Angeles home in 2012, the art world lost an unmistakable, atypical voice. A massive retrospective of the Kelley’s work–a collision of raw sexuality, putrid decay, and reference points to the broad spectrum of American culture that has influenced a legion of artists like Harmony Korine–has occupied the entire space at MoMA PS1 since October. Sunday afternoon, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and German artist Jutta Koether wished the exhibition goodbye with a performance that was part memento, part experiment, part public eulogy.
The stage was backlit by a massive visual projection of a piece from Kelley’s Kandor project: bottled worlds inspired by Superman’s home planet of Krypton. PS1’s performance space is a domed-shaped tent and the shadows created by the lighting effects loomed large and eerie over the crowd.
Gordon–wearing a sleeveless black dress–handled guitar, while Koether (XXX Macarena) crafted long ethereal synth lines. In the spirit of Kelley’s jumbling of the high and low brow, Gordon played the backing tracks to the noisy soundscapes from a portable CD player that couldn’t have cost more than 20 bucks.
Gordon and Kelley were good friends; Kelley created the iconic cover art for Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty: a stuffed doll with an earnest smile stitched into its sad little face. Years earlier, Sonic Youth had scored an NYC performance Kelley gave entitled “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile.” Kelley even dabbled in noise rock himself as a member of the art school chic Destroy All Monsters. During Sunday’s performance, it was clear that Gordon harbored great affection for the artist.
Gordon interluded the lengthy instrumental pieces with snippets of a conversation she and Kelley had for Interview Magazine titled “Sonic Youth’s Flashy Gordon,” another play on comic book imagery. Gordon took Kelley’s part, while Koether played Gordon in a rather hilarious over-sexed German accent. Halfway through the show they switched parts, which created an interesting interplay of identity. Gordon voiced Kelley as cheeky and darkly humored with just a touch of California Spicoli stoner. She spoke with the warm familiarity of someone who was close to him, at home inhabiting the words of her departed friend. It was touching and a little sad.
Kelley’s work is more than a little pervy, so it was funny to hear Gordon (as Kelley) ask her younger self about becoming a sex symbol. Then, in almost the same breath, she would interrogate herself on the racial politics of Sonic Youth’s “Kool Things” music video. “Are the black men being depicted as other? As objects?” Somehow LL Cool J swam into the discussion–this was the ’90s, after all.
After the show, many in the crowd–and about half of New York–filtered into the museum to get a last look at the retrospective. It was the largest show at PS1 since 1976, room after room of images, objects, and installations that blur the line between beauty and hideousness. Kelley’s aesthetic has been so widely imitated that it’s easy to forget that he was a perennial outsider, endlessly frustrated with what he viewed as hypocrisy and commercialism rampant in the art world. But Sunday’s show seemed to be a fitting tribute, even if it’s impossible to know what he would have thought of it.
Personal Bias: I’ve seen the Mike Kelley show at least five times now and have become something of a convert.
Random Notebook Dump: My friend Caroline pointed out how truly remarkable Kim Gordon’s shoes were–a pair of silver numbers that looked like they were made from the disco ball Justin Timberlake smashes on the cover of FutureSex/LoveSounds.