Marlene Dumas

Mike Kelley

Marlene Dumas on Mike Kelley

My first encounter with Mike Kelley was at the Sydney Biennale in 1984. Galerie Metro Pictures in New York had told me about his work because he was an extraordinary talent. I was certainly impressed by his space there, filled with drawings from floor to ceiling. The way they were hung made the space look more like a boy’s room decorated with perverse cartoons, than a modern gallery. His work gave me a great deal of pleasure and energy.

The group exhibition Distemper, Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990’s, was held in Washington DC in 1996. There, Kelley talked about his liking for cheap whisky – a taste he remained faithful to, though by then he could afford anything he wanted. I also learned about his love – one I share – for the melancholy paper cut-outs made by the well-known children’s writer Hans Christian Andersen. I listened to passionate exchanges between Kelley and Thomas Schütte, with Kelley arguing that public sculpture had no raison d’être in our present time and should not be made any more. He also felt that artists are not critical enough about taking part in group exhibitions, which profess views to which individual artists don’t necessarily subscribe.

Kelley explored concepts that culture, American culture in particular, impose upon us. He projected different personalities in his work that led to confusion as to who he actually was and what he stood for. After his mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1993 – resulting partly from the success of his ‘abject’ art with found soft toys – he felt he was being seen as an abused child. In fact, what he was interested in was the wider spectrum of ‘institutional abuse’.

We belong to the same generation, a generation with a predilection for the language of psychotherapy. Kelley himself described it as ‘the point at which it becomes glaringly obvious that we are unnatural and that normality is an acquired state’. He also proposed that ‘the heroic individual is replaced by a kind of multi-individual’: the artist as actor and art as satire. To my mind, Kelley had an affinity with the bitterly self-disparaging German Martin Kippenberger, but also something of Maurizio Cattelan’s veiled melancholy. He was a critical but child-like, playful artist.

The stereotypical macho male artist has been replaced by the sensitive man with the courage to deal with the subject of adolescence and look at the world from the perspective of others. Mike Kelley was important not only for representing an art that shines the spotlight on authority, religion, kitsch and our notion of family, but also because he embodied the psychological struggle of the ‘accepted’ artist in the twenty-first century.

Mike Kelley | Marlene Dumas on Mike Kelley. First published (in Dutch) in NRC Handelsblad, 13 December 2012; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts | On Others, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014 [published on the occasion of Mike Kelley’s solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in a special edition of NRC Handelsblad. Translation of ‘Marlene Dumas over Mike Kelley’ by Yvette Rosenberg].