Just back from the MK show. They’re not calling it a “retrospective”. Much to think about … Mostly relating to MK’s courage.
Courage in way he pursued art. MK's work is ubiquitous, but the show is a reminder of how eccentric it is. His practice was to avoid almost everything art traditionally did. Art povera and the conceptualists and land artists jettisoned a lot, but they didn’t—as MK did—give up elegance, purity, refinement. Above all they did not give up the transcendental sublime of abstract art—the weightless bliss of pure form, pure pattern. MK rejected all of that. Which is to say, he rejected most of what makes modern art important for me.
And the traditions he didn’t reject, he altered into something utterly idiosyncratic. There’s expressionism’s heightened hysteria, but minus the glorification of the self. There’s surrealism’s provocative focus on the abject, but minus any hope of liberation. There’s pop engagement with everyday images, but minus the irony and minus the good design.
Fine, but to what end?
He employed art as a means of discerning the authentic demon behind the stupidly improvised devil Halloween costume. Or the authentic beneficent spirit linked somehow with the cast-off stuffed animal toy.
His art is not a solace, but a provocation. He is trying to jolt people out of their stupor. Wake up to the radiant and uncomfortable strangeness of ordinary life.
This show will not convince doubters. MK is not for everybody. Most of his work forces the viewer to look at things the typical art museum visitor would rather ignore. The work is ugly, without any redeeming virtuosity. He pursued spectacular failure and scarifying shame.
He doesn’t even flatter the audience with erudite allusions. The milieu is working class, untouched by high culture, thoroughly derivative and synthetic. There’s no nature.
But that’s not to say that it doesn’t often achieve—entirely on its own terms—beauty. From the very earliest performance props on display, he demonstrated an appreciation for materials, especially degraded, non-art materials. They all seem magnificent now.
And in the installations, there is a beautiful ungainliness of proportion. The Chinatown Wishing Well (1999), for example, and the late Kandors series.
MK isn’t an L.A. artist so much as an American artist--our Edward Hopper.
[Image: Garbage drawing #1 (Mike Kelley, 1988)]