26 July 2013
Simultaneous to the big antological exhibition that Hangar Bicocca (Milano) is dedicating to Mike Kelley (1954-2012), we submit anew a text commissioned by NERO to the contemporary artist Justin Lieberman few years ago.
The show deepens on the intersection of self-reflexivity within the context of subculture, unfolding amid installations, videos and sculptures realized between 2000 and 2006 (more info and images here). In the same way, but from a different point of view, with The (continuing) use-value of Mike Kelley, an open letter etc.etc., Lieberman discusses the ongoing influence of Kelley’s system of dialectics , describing his questioning of the art system and bringing to light his interest in the imperfections of logic. Specifically, the text opens up with Kelley’s authority on a new generation of American contemporary artists, to which Lieberman himself belongs.
We asked Andrea Lissoni, who curated the show at Hangar Bicocca together with Emi Fontana, to briefly comment the Lieberman’s text in order to introduce it:
“This is a failed text. It fails in its premises – verifying Mike Kelley’s influence on a generation of young artists – and it fails in the re-examination of the work of Kelley himself in the light of those younger artists. The only influence that Kelley will ever exert is the one of complexity. Complexity that resides in his unique ability to organize the artwork within the space – as if it was a discourse diffused by multiple schemes (and screens), installed in several dimensions – and in the critical writing. The work of Mike Kelley neither satisfies, nor conforts or confirms. It disturbs, it worries, dazzles, unhinges and it triggers. It leaves to Lieberman the chance to reflect. However, it neither unveils its complexity, nor restarts it. Why read it, then? To confront yourself with a system of thoughts – the one of Lieberman – with a valuable opinion – mine – and to measure yourself with the possibility of being wrong. And, also, to fail.”
THE (CONTINUING) USE-VALUE OF MIKE KELLEY, AN OPEN LETTER ETC. ETC.
by Justin Lieberman
In this text I would like to briefly discuss the ongoing influence of Mike Kelley on a generation of younger artists who for the sake of argument I will divide into two categories: Neo-Formalist Pop among whose practitioners I would number Banks Violette, Sterling Ruby, and Rachel Harrison and Self-Reflexive Anthropological, among whom I would count Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin, Stephen G. Rhodes. But first I would like to take another look at Kelley himself, by re-examining his work through the lens of these younger artists.
One of Kelley’s primary innovations was the introduction of sub-cultural material into a discourse of art previously restricted to phenomenological concerns. His work deals with the (almost) irreconcilable nature of this junction, continually excavating flaws in the reductive logic of a phenomenological model by which to understand artwork, while at the same time refusing to abandon this model for interpretation. Kelley’s work begins its discursive expansion from the point of recognition of stylistic traits within conceptual art and minimalism. This is of course familiar by now; the amateur photography and the typewritten pages of conceptualism, and the industrial materials and geometric forms of minimalism have been taken to task many times for their various hidden ideological agendas. This is not Kelley’s position. Mike Kelley’s work never truly abandons a phenomenological model for its comprehension. He does not seek to desublimate this meaning. Indeed, the ambiguity of his own work pivots on it. Kelley does not reduce minimalism or conceptual art to the status of a sign. Kelley’s work actually functions in much the same way as these earlier movements, and harbors similar ambitions, namely the expansion of art’s definition and spatial boundaries. Kelley’s strategy of introducing the sub-cultural into phenomonological discourse bears certain similarities to the work of other artists who sought to expand the definition of the work of art into its social and political construction, thus continuing the classic modernist paradigm of self reflexivity. Hans Haacke and Michael Asher come immediately to mind, but whereas their work incorporated the institutions of art and its commerce into the expanding frame of modernist self reflexivity, Kelley sought to incorporate the psychological and class-based underpinnings of viewer taste and recognition. In doing so Kelley began to question what he saw as puritanical notions of form (taken for granted as universal) deeply embedded into the discourse surrounding this very expansion.
Kelley’s work exemplifies the ongoing trauma-based game of leapfrog that Hal Foster points out as continuing between the modern and the post-modern. (Although in his book of essays The Return of the Real, Foster wrongly assumes Kelley’s work typifies abjection, and is thus a dead end.) It is not the reduction of minimalism to a sign that Kelley seeks but an extension of minimalism’s very goals. The subcultural material Kelley utilizes in order to achieve these goals are not used as signs of the “low” in order to formulate an diagrammatic equation (with minimalism as “high”) but as the foundational aspects of a critical regionalism evolving parallel to institutional modernism. Nor is this critical regionalism seen or presented as an alternative to the universal. (One of it’s true functions is to reveal institutional culture to be not universal at all. In the light of Kelley’s works it is shown as but one regionalism among many). Rather it is incorporated, in Kelley’s work, through a recognition of common goals. Kelley states in regards to underground comics :
“I would argue heartily that the underground cartoonists were fine artists – their works were, both ideologically and formally, so much in contradiction to the history of mainstream cartooning that they could not be seen as otherwise. Also, their adoption of the comic-book form as a presentational forum links them to other radical avant-garde movements of the ‘60s, such as Happenings and Earth art, which also sought an escape from the confines of the gallery system. This is a point not often made with regard to underground cartoonists.” (1)
Kelley’s shared goals are those of expansion. However he is acutely aware of the precariousness of this project. His work reflects heavily upon Surrealism and it’s legacy. For Kelley, the collapse of the boundaries between art and life that surrealism aspired to (and subsequently failed to achieve) is a lesson learned. This is the origin of the pathos in much of his work. And yet he does not give up. Kelley’s anthropological excavations of mass cultural and subcultural forms reveal ways in which the Surrealist experiment proliferated and so achieved results in unexpected places and with unexpected forms. These locations and forms are Kelley’s allies, as the institutions of art have long since condemned surrealism to the scrap heap of kitsch. But even this is not quite true. Because as Kelley goes along he finds the surrealist impulse again and again within the canon, rearing its head with all the force of the return of the repressed. Here, there is a conflation in which Kelley himself occasionally indulges and which I believe is central to an understanding of his work. This is the conflation of repression (for the sake of the retention of stable identity) and sublimation (on which civilization is built). That which is repressed is bound to return. It is given no alternative outlet. But that which is sublimated is transformed. It becomes the impetus behind useful work. Kelley does not seek to desublimate those works which have been usefully transformed. His own work deals in this very transformation, as all works of art must. Instead, Kelley locates areas and artifacts in culture which masquerade as sublimatory gestures but in fact represent repressive hypocrisies. In the face of these neo-conservative repressions, Kelley spares no mercy. A particular example within Kelley’s ouvre of this outing of repression masked as sublimation is in his treatment of the language of formalism as it developed against the background of Clement Greenberg’s ultimately restrictive definition.
Kelley’s work is partly predicated on developing perversions of formalist doctrine. There are literally hundreds of artists who have taken up certain subjects which Kelley brought to the canonical table (punk, sci-fi, subcultural production, regionalism, etc.) and yet most of these artists have merely integrated these subjects into a matrix of minimalism and formalist abstraction that has been in place since well before Kelley’s time. Claus Oldenberg is one example, but much of Pop Art could be seen in this way. Pop Art’s primary innovation was the introduction of mass cultural subjects and means of production into the language of formalism. On a neo-conservative return to traditional formalist models I would quote Kelley again :
“We’re in a really super-neo-formalist period, but one that’s operating within a pop bracket. So a lot of formalism is being projected through the cliches associated with pop culture. You have a ton of artists who take a post-Minimalist formal approach, but instead of using raw materials, they use materials derived from popular culture. So Damien Hirst uses a Dan Graham – esque structure to reference medicine ads, or Cady Noland will project the National Enquirer through a Naumanesque structure. I think she’s a good artist, but that kind of practice is extremely dominant. It’s funny, because I’ve always thought that mixing pop and formalism was a really important part of my work, but compared to what’s going on now, my work is arcane.” (2)
Of course, Kelley is indulging in a bit of patronizing rhetoric when he denigrates his own work in comparison to neo-formalist pop. We can assume he is fully aware that this art assumes a regressive stance in relation to the post modern that he himself has studiously avoided. The work of many young neo-formalist pop artists actually has little to do with Kelley’s approach, although it does make superficial use of his subjects. In Kelley’s own work the mixing of Pop and Formalism is revealed as an inherent contradiction, but never as a stalemate. Kelley approaches his subjects with respect not only to their intentions, but to the critical/historical reception they received. His work does not illustrate the failure of modernist ideals, or the banality of mass cultural forms. Instead, he shuttles back and forth between these poles, refusing to position himself in a way that might result in the conclusion of dialogue. It is a precarious position, to be sure, because a step too far in either direction would result in a didactic lesson at the end of history. Neo-Formalist Pop operates in a very different way. Beginning from a point at which each and every point of reference is reduced to the status of a sign, this approach treats these signs as design elements within a neo-conservative scheme based on nostalgia and pastiche. It eschews the contradictions inherent in its pastiche of forms and proceeds directly into the formalist paradigm of variations on a theme. The minimalism referenced in the work of Banks Violette or Sterling Ruby is not the minimalism of perceptual expansion as evinced by Judd or LeWitt. It is the minimalism of the furniture designers who followed in their wake, for whom the movement could most usefully be reduced to a sign. Of course it could be argued that this very reduction is the true subject of neo-formalist pastiche, and that through its unmasking it seeks to recoup formalism’s lost ideals. But in the face of such highly stylized forms this seems unlikely. There is another reason for this as well. In the case of Rachel Harrison, the appropriation of certain elements of Kelley’s own practice has the effect of treating Kelley’s complex negotiations themselves as a sign, and so exceed his influence precisely by abandoning his project altogether. Harrison may be the exception here, as there is another way of looking, which makes itself clear upon closer inspection of her work. More so than any of the other artists mentioned in this essay, Harrison makes work that resembles Kelley’s, as well as that of Kelley’s contemporary John Miller. This resemblance is a knowing one, and when it appears there is an inclination to investigate the work’s various material aspects along the very lines that the well-known work of Kelley and Miller have utilized. That is to search for contradictions and conflict within the framework of the sculpture. Because of the way in which Kelley and Miller have utilized similar materials, there now exists a program by which we assume those materials must be read. In this frame of mind, one might ask the question “How are Sister Wendy and this blobby form (two elements of a particular piece by Harrison) related? How are they opposed? What are the historical frameworks that accompany them?” But Harrison is well aware that her chosen materials beg deconstruction. They are chosen with this in mind. But Harrison cuts the Gordian Knot of this deconstructive approach to the understanding of her works with formalism as her sword. Her work can be seen as engaged with a deconstructive approach to interpretation through a constant frustration of deconstruction as imperative.
Neo-Formalist Pop is a pattern which either ignores or massively dumbs down the primary innovations in Kelley’s work and creates a situation in which his aesthetic innovations can become fashionable (disposable). But in reality, Kelley’s work can never itself be fashionable. In fact, it often reveals the underpinnings of the work it stands in relation to as merely so. Because of his massive popularity and influence the fashion world has attempted to assimilate his work many times, but it never quite worked out. A great triumph for the work, because the fashion industry has in many ways assumed advertising’s former role in relationship to art: that of continuous appropriation and desublimation.
Self-Reflexive Anthropological work tends to take Kelley at his word. This word is a call for a rigorous critical regionalism. That is to say the development of new cultural forms which neither take the success nor the failure of the modernist project for granted. Instead, self-reflexive anthropological artists task themselves with the creation of works which grow out of regional forms without resorting to nostalgia for historical forms (traditionalism) or pastiche of established modernist forms into regionalist culture either for the sake of “updating” it or desublimating its meaning.
In the case of Cory Arcangel, an endless succession of online sub-cultures are both inhabited and subjected to critique, however Arcangel’s work cannot be reduced to an anthropologist of the internet in a traditional sense. A term such as this implies objective distance in relation to subjects. Arcangel’s interventions do maintain a certain objectivity, but the notion of distance in his work is constantly reassessed. At times he mocks the techno-fetishist impulses that drive the very derivés he performs, utilizing the constantly updated (and eclipsed) means of creative production in ways that reveal within them their very struggle to become modern. (3)
Ryan Trecartin’s enormously popular videos and installations could be seen as more closely relating to the work Kelley often cites than Kelley’s own. I make this distinction because Trecartin does not often engage in polemics or structural games. This has resulted in critics of his work dismissing his practice as naive or as a form of pastiche. Trecartin’s art does not begin from the point of a problematized relationship to modernism and post-modernism, as Kelley’s does. However, it is important to note that it is Kelley’s critical reassessment of figures such as Jack Smith and Paul Thek that lay the groundwork for a critical reading of Trecartin. His videos and the processual nature of his installations are born out of a questioning of notions of individualism and authorship and a faith in collective effort. They engage in a repurposing of commodity culture towards these very ends. As with Arcangel, technology as means of production and communication is constantly turned inwards on itself. Cameras, cell phones, computers, editing equipment, and various means of distribution and display appear again and again as subjects and props, both in the videos themselves and their installations. But with Trecartin this is never the work’s primary focus. Rather, it is a matter of course along the way, the result of a method of working that seeks to find a balance between lived experience and one which posit itself as detached, objective, and aesthetic. In the work of Trecartin, self-reflexivity is not an end in itself, nor a stumbling block in the way narrative cohesion.
Lastly, there is the work of Stephen G. Rhodes. In many respects, Rhodes’ work is closer to Kelley’s model than the rest. Rhodes’ work is both topical and political, and self-reflexivity here functions precisely in opposition to these aspects. Rhodes practices a form of ironic historicization, taking up subjects such as the civil war, slavery and contemporary political scandal. But the work does not engage this material in objective terms. Rather, Rhodes’ installations take up the already mediated versions of the narratives he uses, begging the question, “What other versions are there?” Rhodes takes it as a given that all historical narratives are highly mediated and then perversely regards this mediation as a form of poetic license which may then be subjected to his own manipulations. For these, Rhodes takes his cues from figures like Brion Gysin, Samuel Beckett, and Bruce Nauman. These are people who have also influenced Kelley’s practice to a great degree. And as with Kelley, it is a mistake to view Rhodes’ work as simply cynical or as yet another example of punk negation. Because what is pictured in his sculptures, videos, and installations is not a refusal or a withdrawal. Instead it is a representation of the dissonance between repressively desublimated visions that would propose our society as “the best of all possible worlds” in order to better preserve the status quo, and those that would seek to represent events through a conveniently distancing lens of “objectivity” and thus absolve themselves of responsibility for those representations.
1. From an interview with Robert Storr in ArtForum, on Eye Infection
2. From an interview with Dennis Cooper in ArtForum, Trauma Club
3. John Miller on Christopher Williams’ Mechanization Takes Command