A driving force of contemporary art, Mike Kelley produced a multifaceted oeuvre during his four-decade long career that included, but was not limited to, photography, painting, sculpture, video, performance, and a formidable body of critical and creative writing. His work conflates high and low forms of popular culture while examining social relations, cultural identity, and systems of belief, which are underscored by Kelley’s idiosyncratic approach to art making. While Kelley lived and worked in Los Angeles, his practice inspired not only his peers and students, but also a subsequent generation of artists internationally.
‘Occult rituals interest me because they are akin to art-making.’—Mike Kelley
‘Ectoplasm Photographs’ captures Kelley’s interest in spiritualist, symbolist and pictorialist photography. Enveloped in darkness, Kelley’s otherworldly face repeatedly confronts the viewer across fifteen chromogenic prints. Resonating with notions of Spiritualism—a belief that departed souls can interact with the living—Kelley assumes the role of a psychic medium. A white, cloudlike substance, ectoplasm, flows from his orifices, denoting a paranormal, viscous energy exuded from the body during a spiritual ritual. In one photograph, Kelley drapes a stuffed animal—a sock monkey—in white gauze, emulating the spirit itself.
A close friend and collaborator, artist Tony Oursler traces Mike Kelley’s exploration of the paranormal, including the influence of David Askevold, his grandfather Fulton Oursler’s book ‘Spirit Mediums Exposed’, and the origins of the concept of the ectoplasm.
Veiled in shadow and simultaneously bathed in direct light, these exceptionally rendered self-portraits reveal the artist’s engagement with the aesthetics of occultism and the performative, exploring boundaries of the self and other, the natural and supernatural. Inspired by early 20th Century spirit photography, ‘Ectoplasm Photographs’ belongs to a series of photographs—which includes another seminal work ‘The Poltergeist’—that explored and addressed occult history. The two projects are closely linked as ‘Ectoplasm Photographs’ is comprised of several photographs originally taken in 1978 for ‘The Poltergeist’ (completed in 1979).
Notably, ‘The Poltergeist’ is among Kelley’s first projects to centre around a theme that is expressed in a text as well as images, which relates to the subject matter of ‘Ectoplasm Photographs.’ Kelley’s accompanying text centers on the various characteristics of a poltergeist, and by doing so, he creates a system of imagery that flows from his narratives. Accordingly, his texts ‘are characterized by free association, rich metaphor, [and] lush descriptive passages….’ They are not meant to state the meaning of his work, but rather, offer another layer of proposition.
Kelley’s engagement with photography dates back to 1976, when he began using 35-mm black-and-white photography. Kelley kept a diverse archive of material that informed numerous projects throughout his career such as ‘The Sublime’ (1984), ‘Reconstructed History’ (1989), ‘Dust Balls’ (1994), and the ‘Day Is Done’ (2005). Abandoning the documentary and aesthetic traditions of photography, Kelley harnessed the medium as a quasi-sociological tool, allowing him to explore connections and contradictions surrounding systems of identity, class and religion—among others—positioning him among the most astute cultural commentators of our time.
Our new gallery space at 542 West 22nd Street is now open for timed viewing appointments. Designed by Selldorf Architects, the 36,000 square foot space has been envisioned as a home for art and artists, placing the works on view at the forefront of the visitor’s experience. Mike Kelley’s ‘Ectoplasm Photographs’ can be viewed alongside solo exhibitions of work by George Condo, Jack Whitten and Ida Applebroog. To book an appointment, please make a reservation and review viewing guidelines prior to your visit.
Artwork © 2020 Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. All Rights Reserved / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Images: Mike Kelley, Ectoplasm Photographs, 1979. Photo: Thomas Barratt; Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, 1997; Mike Kelley, The Poltergeist, 1979. Photo: F. Delpech; Mike Kelley, Still from ‘Day Is Done (Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions #2-32)’, 2005/2006; Hauser & Wirth New York, 542 West 22nd Street. Courtesy of Selldorf Architects. Photo: Nicholas Venezia