Mike Kelley: Sublime

Mike Kelley once said: “I want to keep away from any focus on the human person except for its sheer materiality. ...” during a conversation with Thomas McEvilley that took place in 1992.  What Kelley meant at the time was that he wanted to avoid the questions of identity.  The artist instead chose to work with the unconscious and memories of trauma and uncanny hidden places deep within the psyche.  When on the subject of sublime and taking from Edmund Burk, McEvilley gave this interpretation that echoed the ideas behind the artist’s works in the current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth: “For Burke the sublime was anything that is so vast and ‘other’ that it seems by its very existence to threaten the annihilation of the observing subject.  One is witnessing a thing whose inner meaning is one’s own annihilation.” *  
Mike Kelley 
City 17
2011
Tinted urethane resin on illuminated base
213.4 x 41.9 (diam.) cm / 84 x 16 1/2  (diam.) in

© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts / Licensed by VAGA New York
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

On September 10, Hauser & Wirth opened “Mike Kelley,” the gallery’s first exhibition devoted to the artist’s later works produced during 2007 – 2011 just a year before his death.  Organized in collaboration with Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, this is the first in New York to focus exclusively on the artist’s later series, Kandors.

The atmosphere upon entering the gallery spaces feels like a cavernous refuge of outer space creatures.  Under a spectrum of dim lights exuberating rays of primary colors and in between filled up of various secondary colors as the result of light refractions, Kelley’s Kandors are mesmerizing to the eyes as they look to be floating in space.

Mike Kelley 
City 3
2007 – 2011
Tinted urethane resin, acrylic on illuminated base
144.8 x 52.1 (diam.) cm / 57 x 20 1/2 (diam.) in

© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts / Licensed by VAGA New York
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

Mike Kelley 
City 15
2011
Tinted urethane resin, acrylic on illuminated base
166.4 x 60 (diam.) cm / 65 1/2 x 23 5/8 (diam.) in

© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts / Licensed by VAGA New York
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

The city that these illumined resin sculptures represent is the City of Kandor.  Kandor is the capital of the planet Krypton.  Kandor is named for Superman’s birthplace.  Superman, of course is referring to the American comic book superhero who protects and saves the world from destructive forces.  Below is a story included in the press release that helps to understand the significance of the city in relation to Superman (the character) and it also takes us closer to answer why Kelley became fascinated by it.

Mike Kelley 
Kandor 4
2007
Mixed media with video projection
Part 1 with bottle: 161.3 x 325.1 x 242.6 cm / 63 1/2 x 128 x 95 1/2 in
Part 2 with cities: 142.2 x 265.7 x 95.3 cm / 56 x 104 5/8 x 37 1/2 in
Overall dimensions variable

© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts / Licensed by VAGA New York
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

“According to the comic book legend, Superman’s father Jor-El sent his infant son to safety on Earth before Krypton’s destruction, saving his life but inadvertently sentencing Superman to a future of displacement, loneliness, and longing.  Superman grows up believing that Kandor was destroyed, but later discovers his real home still exists: Kandor was stolen by intergalactic archvllian Brainiac prior to Krypton’s demise, shrunken to a miniature metropolis, and left trapped inside a glass bottle.  Superman ultimately wrestles Kandor away from Brainiac and hides it in his Fortress of Solitude, sustaining its citizens with tanks of Kryptonic atmosphere.  As Kelley once explained, Kandor functions for Superman as a ‘perpetual reminder of his inability to escape the past, and his alienated relationship to his present world.’”

Mike Kelley 
Kandor 2B
2011
Mixed media
195.6 x 236.2 x 215.9 cm / 77 x 93 x 85 in

© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts / Licensed by VAGA New York
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen


From reading this story, it is no surprise that the artist who liked experimenting with the unconscious, fantasy and memories of childhood should chose this particular subject matter.  However what is crucial is not in the narrative background of his subject matter, but it is the feeling that this city, Kandor (a physically non-existent place) evokes.  The sense of alienation, displacement and strong attachment to a past that exists only in one’s mind is what makes Kelley’s works sublime.  More over, these works are not just about the objects’ physicality and materiality per se, rather the emotional influence and its uncanny presence that the sculptures exude on the viewers.  Nonetheless, the level of engineering and technicality of the sculptures is stupendous, and the result is visually mesmerizing.

Mike Kelley 
Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude)
2011
Mixed media
289.6 x 1524 x 2286 cm / 114 x 600 x 900 in


© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts / Licensed by VAGA New York
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen


This exhibition is large and comprehensive, as mentioned before it is the first in the US to showcase Kelley’s entire series of Kandors.  From here we are going to skip ahead a little.  After one maneuvers by the city sculptures, and passes through a narrower and hallway-like gallery space of the artist’s Lenticular series (which are of images depicting Kandor City encased in a glass bottle with a tube feeding its citizens Kryptonic atmosphere), there stands the most monumental piece of the exhibition- Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude).  

Kelley’s fascination with solitude and trauma is manifested on epic scale of this enormously giant cave piece.   Through every sculpted, cracked and stacked pieces that make up this pile of ruins, it triggers a fearsome sensation that somewhere in the dark a monster resides.  Once again, the gallery is dimly lit therefore leaves one with a feeling of precariousness and unease.  But be careful of where you tread, and only parts of the cave has spot lights from above, while the rest is left pitch dark for those brave enough to explore its mysterious architecture.  

Mike Kelley 
Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude) (detail)
2011
Mixed media
289.6 x 1524 x 2286 cm / 114 x 600 x 900 in

© Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts / Licensed by VAGA New York
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

Then the rewarding surprise comes when one discovers a rainbow-colored recess.  This treasure is Superman’s solitary sanctum glittering with tiny gold trinkets.  As the title suggests, the fortress has exploded and the viewers are left with a fairytale like ending.  Amid the seemingly never-ending darkness there is a heart of gold to surface, for the one who is stoic enough to endure destruction, trauma, loneliness and alienation.  This is the duality of Kelley’s Kandor, it is a captured and lifeless city encased and cut off from rest of the world, but it is also a precious refuge retaining a sliver of hope and fantasy.

"Mike Kelley" opens until October 24th at Hauser & Wirth on 18th Street in New York.

*Simone Morley, ed., "Mike Kelley In Conversation with Thomas McEvilley, 1992,"  Documents of Contemporary Art: The Sublime (London and Cambridge: Whitechapel gallery and The MIT Press, 2010.), 201-204.  

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