Mike Kelley: Mister Memory

Hauser & Wirth Publishing
10 Mar 2018
Mike Kelley, ‘Memory Ware Flat #58’ (detail), 2009. © Mike Kelley. Courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich
10 Mar 2018
Ralph Rugoff
Mike Kelley. Memory Ware. A Survey
Hauser & Wirth Publishing
Feb 2017
pp. 20 - 29

Mike Kelley's Memory Ware series – a diverse group of mixed-media paintings and sculptures made between 2000 and 2010 – exemplifies the thematic engagement with memory that informed the second half of the artist's career.

Beginning with major projects such as Educational Complex (1995), a set of architectural models conflating Kelley’s recollections of his childhood home and of every school he attended, and Categorical Imperative (with Franz West; 1999), a sprawling installation that recontextualized leftover production materials from twenty years of art making (see p. 22), much of Kelley’s work explored conventions related to remembering, representing, and reconstructing the past. Fueled by the artist’s deeply felt antipathy to nostalgia and incorporating references to personal, folk, and collective histories, these works were realized, formally, in ways that evoked tropes of modernist aesthetic practice and theory while critically reflecting on the criteria and categories through which recent art-historical memory has been forged.
Kelley borrowed the phrase “memory ware” from a type of North American folk art in which the surfaces of common household objects – bottles, vases, lamps, and so on – are completely covered with small, decorative keepsakes and personal items. The artist first encountered examples of the genre at a Toronto antiques fair in 2000, where he purchased a memory ware bottle. Given his long­standing interest in repurposing materials with prior histories as well as his ongoing engagement with the aesthetics of craft and folk art, one can easily imagine how he came to envision possibilities – apparently, almost immediately – for developing works that would deploy the memory ware aesthetic, but toward very different ends.
In a pair of exhibitions titled Memory Ware, held in Paris and Cologne in 2000 and 2001, respectively (see pp. 32, 35), Kelley presented a variety of sculptures as well as a group of rectangular “paintings” he called Memory Ware Flats, in which the flat support takes on the role of the common object covered by trinkets and charms. The earliest Memory Ware Flats were large, vertical compositions with a uniformly distributed mass of buttons, beads, costume jewelry, figurative and decorative pins, watches, bangles, promotional buttons, and other baubles, enmeshed in a ground of gray grout. Amid the teeming jumble of small objects assembled in Memory Ware Flat #5 (2001 ; see p. 61 ), for instance, one can discern a screaming death’s-head; a Buddha pin; shiny, red, heart-shaped brooches; a copper penny; and pins with texts ranging from “Pope Go Home” to “Bingo at Sam’s Town.” Kelley introduced a second stylistic variation with Memory Ware Flat #6 (2001; see p. 65): here, the surface is composed solely of different-colored buttons from clothing, which, by virtue of their similar size and the density of their arrangement, create a subtly shimmering optical field. Finally, Memory Ware Flat#17 (2001; see pp.114-15) inaugurated a third, more “painterly” style: strings of beads are arranged in sinuously curving lines and organic shapes, calling to mind the aqueous designs of marbled paper.

Installation view, 'Mike Kelley', Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, Malmo, Sweden, 1997

Installation view, ‘Mike Kelley’, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 1999

With their vivid, pullulating surfaces cordoned off within wood frames, the Memory Ware Flats clearly align themselves with the medium of painting rather than with assemblage or sculptural relief. Heroically scaled, horizontal compositions such as Memory Ware Flat #17 and Memory Ware Flat #18 (2001; see pp.118-19) evoke the “allover” approach of postwar American abstraction. (The use of the word “flat” in the series title, meanwhile, recalls the modernist credo that painting ought to remain faithful to the flatness of its canvas support.) In place of sweeping gestures and dramatic skeins of paint, however, Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats substitute tightly packed fields of trinkets and charms. Seemingly randomly ordered yet exactingly neat, as though fashioned through a kind of highly organized pictorial vomiting, their “noncompositional” arrangement mitigates any impression of sentimentality; indeed, in sharp contrast to the homey look and nostalgic orientation of memory ware folk art, Kelley’s works appear – oddly enough, given their material makeup-coolly formal.
On one level, of course, these works poke fun at the alleged “purity” of non­representational art, with its attendant aspiration to transcend banal, everyday reference. By using nostalgic baubles to reconfigure that canonical vocabulary, the Memory Ware Flats mock the ahistorical “timelessness” of abstract painting. Yet these works are not simply a deadpan send-up of idealist aesthetic rhetoric. Embodying seemingly contradictory cultural values, they defy any attempt at a singular or reductive reading. Rather than conflating the antithetical aesthetic traditions they put into play, they conjure a new, destabilized form of “painting.” Seen up close, the “flats” confront us with a sparkling hoard of kitsch mementos; seen from afar, the legibility of the individual components is subsumed within the allover composition, and our perception of any particular content gives way to a focus on formal relationships.
Abstraction is made to appear here not as an art of pure surface-as the arbi­ters of formalist modernism had proclaimed it is – but as an expression dependent on the suppression of memory’s signs. Moreover, these works imply, quite cannily, that the cultural framework within which folk art and craft are posi­tioned, at least when they are idealized as reflections of unchanging collective traditions and values, is equally ahistorical. Kelley’s “flats” thus insinuate, not without humor, that apparent opposites – transcendent abstraction and nostalgic folk art – share a similar rhetorical posture. In this light, the Memory Ware works appear to be a manifestation of Kelley’s continuous artistic offensive against idealist types of cultural production, particularly those that supposedly incarnate eternal or transcendent values. By playing elements of modernism and folk art against each other, Kelley short-circuited, and denatured, the respective idealizing mechanisms of each genre. Far from resolving the seemingly irreconcilable cultural positions they embody, the Memory Ware Flats operate in the spaces between our readymade categories and values.
Memory Ware #60 (2010; see pp. 240-41) exemplifies this strategy, even to the extent of seeming to sit between categories established within the larger Memory Ware project itself. Constructed on a thick foam support rather than on a board, the irregularly shaped, horizontal composition splits the difference between sculptural wall relief and “painting.” A coffeepot and a pair of car-shaped salt and pepper shakers are balanced on its top edge like objects on a shelf, emphasizing the work’s three-dimensional character, while a typical array of decorative baubles and jewelry teems over the dark, undulating ground. Even the title suggests its anomalous status: Kelley had previously made fifty-nine works that he designated Memory Ware Flats, but, although this one is numbered as the sixtieth, its title appropriately omits the word “flat.”
Marking an ambiguous end point to the series, Memory Ware #60 also significantly lacks a frame. By this omission, it offers a retroactive reminder that considerations related to “framing” are key to the series, as they are to much of Kelley’s work. Memory Ware Frame (2000; see p. 73) draws attention to this issue more directly by reversing the format of the larger series: while its support displays only the “underpainting” that, in the other “flats:’ is concealed beneath a field of baubles, its frame, encrusted with glittering charms, becomes the displaced focus of the work. Memory Ware Frame is the exception that proves the rule: it is only by virtue of their framing that the chaotic profusion of trinkets in the Memory Ware Flats can be redeemed as visual “composition.” Defining the surface area as a zone to be looked at, the frame effectively transforms the teeming riot of embedded objects into a pictorial arena.
The issue of framing ties in to Kelley’s enduring interest in the visual rhetoric used for depicting “formlessness” – a subject that betrays the conventional and arbitrary character of representation in general. This interest had surfaced earlier in his Garbage Drawing series (1988) and again in his large sculptural installation Framed and Frame (Miniature Reproduction “Chinatown Wishing Well” Built by Mike Kelley after “Miniature Reproduction ‘Seven Star Cavern’ Built by Prof. H.K. Lu”) (1999; opposite). The latter consists of a full-scale model of a well-known monument and tourist attraction in Los Angeles’s Chinatown district as well as a reproduction of the fence that surrounds it, which is presented separately, as a companion piece. By exhibiting the fence as a sculpture in its own right, Kelley sought to highlight its function as a frame that gives definition and meaning to the shapeless, almost illegible representation of “landscape” in the other component of the installation. In his statement on the project, Kelley observed, “Without its surrounding fence (which signifies that this is an object worth considering), the Chinatown wishing well would appear to the causal viewer as little more than a heap of scrap cement. The function of the fence is not unlike the ‘frame’ of a painting that, similarly, reveals the ‘formless’ as visually discrete.” (1)

Installation view, 'Memory Ware', Hauser & Wirth London, 2016

Installation view, 'Memory Ware', Hauser & Wirth London, 2016

Despite its markedly different appearance, the artist considered Framed and Frame one of the key precursors to his Memory Ware project. (2) A series of sculptures included in the first Memory Ware exhibition relate to Aerodynamic Vertical to Horizontal Shift (1999), which reproduces part of the amorphous landscape of Framed and Frame but in an altered orientation (see p. 39). Displayed on sawhorses, Aerodynamic Vertical to Horizontal Shift essentially reframes a formless section of a formless whole as if to underscore, with muted irony, the inherent contradictions involved in that operation. Similarly presented on sawhorses, sculptures such as SS Memory Ware Hump (2000; see pp. 42-43) borrow the earlier work’s blobby concrete-like medium but also reveal part of their underlying wood framework and interior spaces. These ungainly works elaborate an almost comical dialogue between a string of binary oppositions: form and formlessness, surface and interior, ornament and design, “artistic” craft and DIY construction.
The following year, Kelley developed this strategy in more explicit terms in a group of sculptures that seem to compare and contrast different objects, ostensibly as a way of evaluating competing systems of value. Like some kind of wayward didactic demonstration, Balanced by Mass and Personification (2001; see p.101) juxtaposes a large water jug, covered in buttons like memory ware and displayed on a black pedestal, with a smaller plastic bottle, displayed on a white pedestal and featuring a crude rendering of a masklike face. Our attention is immediately and predictably drawn to the image of the face, however pathetically rendered, rather than to the more intricately and “artfully” composed surface of the larger jug. Our anthropomorphic bias, in effect, trumps the appeal of abstraction and craft, reminding us that our aesthetic responses are never disinterested. Balanced by Mass and Worth (2001; see pp. 102-3), meanwhile, satirizes notions of sculptural balance by pairing two identically sized, torpedo-like forms, each held aloft on two short poles; while one oblong is completely covered with beads and buttons, the other is adorned, at its tip, by a single 1940 Wendell Willkie campaign pin-an object whose monetary value exceeds that of all the sundry items encrusting its neighbor’s surface combined. By unexpectedly mixing the criteria for evaluating artistic and economic worth, Balanced by Mass and Worth hints at the absurdity of any lingering notions we might harbor about “eternal” formal laws or “transcendent” aesthetic values.
In Memory of Camelot (2000; see p. 75), another composite sculpture featuring distinct components, was inspired by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal airplane crash in the summer of 1999, in which Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette also perished. The work’s central element is a framed copy of the July 18, 1999, front page of the Los Angeles Times, featuring a banner headline about the crash and a pair of accompanying photographs: a recent image of Kennedy and his wife and the iconic news photograph of three-year-old “John-John” at his father’s funeral, saluting the president’s casket as it passes by. The framed newspaper is sandwiched between two contrasting sculptural components. On one side, a vintage Canadian memory ware bottle is austerely displayed on a black plinth, under a glass bell jar; on the other side, a painted figurine of John-John, based on the historical photograph reproduced in the newspaper, stands atop a large tree branch decorated in the manner of memory ware. The branch rises up from an undecorated stump, on which rests a tiny toy model of a castle. As with Kelley’s other composite sculptures, In Memory of Camelot incorporates contrasting aesthetics (for example, the minimalism of the plinth versus the organic shape of the branch), and, partly on account of significant shifts in scale between its various elements, the overall assemblage seems less like a coherent whole than a gathering of disparate parts – an effect that provides a clue to the artist’s underlying intentions.
Kelley described this unsettling ensemble matter-of-factly, as a sculpture “memorializing the death of John Kennedy Jr.,” (3) yet it is clearly a far less straight­forward proposition. The work’s title, it is worth noting, refers not to JFK Jr. but to “Camelot,” evoking the popular branding and romanticization of President Kennedy’s administration; it is thus a sculpture in “memory” of an idealized history, itself veiled in the myths of another time. Given the title, it is tempting to speculate that what initially attracted the artist’s attention was the pairing of the two photographs on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, which suggested the extent to which JFK Jr.’s public identity was forever mediated through the history of his father and, more specifically, through his father’s murder. Like an eerie reversal of before-and-after photos, the two images depict, respectively, the child after the tragic murder of his father and the adult son shortly before his own violent death.
Memorializing someone typically involves creating an enduring, iconic representation, but Kelley’s sculptural ensemble undermines such a project by insinuating that our relationship with any single image is always filtered through, and informed by, the memory of earlier images. Instead of a romantic evocation of an individual, In Memory of Camelot sets up a series of loaded and ambiguous relationships between its various elements; perhaps the most disturbing of those relationships is the uncanny cross talk between the black-and-white news photograph of John-John and the colored figurine based on that image. In its extreme transformation of historical trauma into sentimental kitsch, the figurine calls attention to the ways in which the original image itself has functioned as a kind of collective screen memory, an anodyne surrogate for direct depictions of the horror of President Kennedy’s assassination. Ultimately, Kelley’s “memorial” is less concerned with its ostensible subject than with reflecting on the affinities between memory and art, both of which allow us to access not the “thing­in-itself” but only its re-presentation – the rhetorical constructions that stand in for some absent thing or experience. Rather than presenting an iconic image of remembrances, In Memory of Camelot generates a series of slippages between the various categories and conventions it invokes – suggesting a model, perhaps, for how Kelley might have wanted his own work to be understood and remembered.
Kelley created one other major memory ware work about a public figure. As part of his 2001 installation John Glenn Memorial Detroit River Reclamation Project (Including the Local Culture Pictorial Guide, 1968-1972, Wayne/Westland Eagle)(see pp.106-7), the artist covered a ten-foot-tall figurative sculpture of John Glenn, the former astronaut and United States senator, with a mosaic of broken bottles and plates, ceramic shards, and tools. The astronaut was an ironically nostalgic choice of subject for the artist, who, in his youth, had attended John Glenn High School in Westland, Michigan. In addition to the associations conjured by the memory ware technique, the work’s formal references range from social realism to the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti to the monstrous astronaut in the 1959 science fiction film First Man into Space. Fragmented yet domineering, absurd yet heroic, Kelley’s sculpture conflates references to personal and historical memory, modernism and folk art, publicly sanctioned monuments and subversive antimonuments, fashioning a web of concatenated contradictions.
At first glance, the decade-long Memory Ware project can seem like an anomaly in Kelley’s oeuvre. In place of the caustic wit and satirical orientation that characterize much of his output, the “flats,” in particular, appear to emphasize decorative surface effects and to maintain a content-neutral demeanor. Yet the borrowed aesthetics deployed by the artist must not be taken at face value; instead, they represent elements in an associative labyrinth, discussion points within an intricately spiraling web of linked ideas and allusions. In the Memory Ware sculptures and paintings, Kelley elaborated on artistic strategies he had developed throughout his career, playing with conventions to reveal their role in generating and framing meaning and crossing the wires of readymade categories to confound our expectations. Underlying this approach was the artist’s strong opposition to any idealist assertion that objects – including artworks – have any inherent significance or value. Instead, Kelley’s works reveal that, as the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has observed, “the same object [in different contexts] can function successively as a disgusting reject and as a sublime, charismatic apparition; the difference, strictly structural, does not pertain to the ‘effective properties’ of the object, but only to its place in the symbolic order.” (4) Indeed, as Memory Ware wryly demonstrates, even sentimental keepsakes, given the right framing and composition, can evoke “transcendent” values. The determining factor is not the formal vocabulary but the conceptual framing and contextualization.
On another level, the Memory Ware series is an extended chapter in Kelley’s larger engagement with the reuse, repurposing, and recontextualization of materials and ideas, including those associated with his own earlier production. In this respect, the sculptures and paintings participate in the artist’s effort to destabilize or subvert the historical reception of his own work; not only did he seek to problematize the ways in which it had already been interpreted, but he also wished to disrupt the process by which an artist’s oeuvre is reified and memorialized. With Memory Ware, Kelley articulated an ironic approach to that task while fashioning artworks – as he did in so many different ways throughout his career – that continually call into question their own identities. Atypical in appearance even as they explore some of Kelley’s core concerns, the Memory Ware series invites us to reimagine our understanding of this artist’s vast body of work – to put aside existing ideas and look more deeply, searching for previously unnoticed connections between his many projects and tracing new networks of associations within them. At the same time, it encourages us to reflect on the ways in which art’s meaning is always in play: as an artist’s œuvre comes to be seen within new contexts and different historical frameworks, our collective reading of it inevitably changes and evolves. To do justice to Kelley’s legacy, we need only take seriously the invitation offered by these works to keep reinventing our ways of remembering.
Ralph Rugoff is Director of the Hayward Gallery in London. As a curator, Rugoff first worked with Mike Kelley for the 1990 exhibition Just Pathetic (Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles) and has been closely associated with the interpretation of his work ever since. Rugoff wrote an essay for the artist’s first retrospective, Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1993, and interviewed Kelley on several occasions; “Dirty Toys: Mike Kelley Interviewed” was published in the winter 1992 issue of 21st Century and “Existing in an Ahistorical Fantasy Space of Trauma” in the exhibition catalogue for Horizontal Tracking Shots (Gagosian Gallery, 2009).
(1) See Kelley’s text “The Meaning Is Confused Spatially, Framed” (1999), reprinted in Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, Proposals, ed. John C. Welchman (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 118-37.
(2) See Mike Kelley, Memory Ware, exh. cat. (Cologne: Jablonka Galerie, 2002), p.69
(3) Ibid., p. 70.
(4) Slajov Zizek, ‘Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture’ (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1992), p.143.

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