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Champion of Independent Thinking: Remembering Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley    Photo: Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center Mike Kelley, the LA-based artist known for his riffs on American popular culture, died in South Pasadena last week in an apparent suicide at the age of 57. This sudden news came as a shock to a lot of us in the artistic community, where Kelley was […]


Mike Kelley    Photo: Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center

Mike Kelley, the LA-based artist known for his riffs on American popular culture, died in South Pasadena last week in an apparent suicide at the age of 57. This sudden news came as a shock to a lot of us in the artistic community, where Kelley was such a daring creative force and personality. Never one to seek approval from his audiences or kowtow to an intellectual elite, he made smart, often audacious work that fearlessly tackled subject matter that others avoided — religion, repressed memory syndrome, and adolescent sexuality, among others. He trolled in a variety of media, from performance to sculpture, painting and installation — whatever best suited his interests at the time.

A few years ago we met while he was working on the Kandors installation, an arrangement of eerily-illuminated glass-bottle miniatures derived from the Superman story (Kandors is the capital of fictional planet Krypton that super-villain Brainiac steals and shrinks). Like much of Kelley’s work, this series came straight out of vernacular culture, but with a psychological twist that distinguished his work even at its most playful. The main subject of conversation was, however, the 1980s’ Craft Morphology series, commonly known as the “plush toy” project. These were objects the artist made in the late ’80s and early ’90s that incorporated stuffed animals in various arrangements, including the famous More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987), a painting-sized wall work of once-loved teddy bears, afghans and knitted dolls assembled in a seemingly carefree arrangement. The works stirred their share of controversy when they first appeared from those who saw child abuse and trauma in their forms, but the artist was alway available to clarify meanings for the misguided. In an interview with critic Isabelle Graw, he once said, “If you don’t write your own history, someone else will, and this ‘history’ will suit their purposes.”


Mike Kelley, Repressed Spatial Relationships Rendered as Fluid, No. 4: Stevenson Junior High and Satellites, 2002

A lot of histories can be written about Mike Kelley, and already the stories of his passing have foreshadowed their narratives. A voracious appetite for punk music and youth culture (he was in a band with fellow artist Jim Shaw called Destroy All Monsters) gives way to Mike Kelley the Performer, one of his many artistic personalities. Kelley was also a ferocious intellect and curator; his 1993 exhibition, The Uncanny, with its odd combinations of art and non-art, was resurrected in the most recent Gwangju Biennale, looking every bit as contemporary as its neighbors.

But in conversation Kelley identified with more humble origins: “I was a middle class kid from the Detroit area,” he told me, whose interests lay in consumerist images and topics like class and religion. As he progressed through a wide variety of artistic developments over the years, this fact remained a constant of his work and self-identity.

We at the Walker Art Center are deeply saddened to lose such a unique and uncompromising artist — a true champion of independent thinking — and extend our deep sympathy to his friends, colleagues, and studio staff who feel his loss keenly.

Related: Watch Mike Kelley’s June 2005 Walker conversation with historian and critic John Welchmann.

India Journal: Darsie Alexander at India Art Fair 2012

Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander is in New Delhi for the India Art Fair. Read her earlier dispatch, on her visit to the studios of Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta. The India Art Fair is now in day three, and the crowds have hardly subsided. While the clientele is not entirely what one might find […]

A reception at Blue Frog, Delhi

Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander is in New Delhi for the India Art Fair. Read her earlier dispatch, on her visit to the studios of Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta.

The India Art Fair is now in day three, and the crowds have hardly subsided. While the clientele is not entirely what one might find at other global fairs like Frieze, there was a lively energy in the booths and passageways (there are three large tented sections to the fair). Of special note to me was the numbers of kids roaming the booths. Packs of teenagers (and younger) made their way in and out of the small exhibit spaces, often led by a teacher or guide. The fact that their education would include going to an art fair (and that there was clearly no anxiety over the supposedly challenging content of some contemporary art forms) was very heartening. It signaled to me that the fair was serving an important pedagogical function, and that kids were getting critical exposure to art and culture during their formative years. I remember noticing the same thing about the Gwangju Biennial last year in Korea — tons of kids prowling the halls and spaces, having their conversations, joking with one another, and being easy around the art.

A performance work based on mourning rituals that nourish departed souls with food, conceived by Subodh Gupta

Organizers of the India Art Fair have made an effort to contextualize the offerings with a lecture series, which has included some important writers, artists, and collectors. For people coming from distant locations, having strong collateral events — which could include performances, off-site events, and speakers’ forums — is good incentive to make the trip because art fairs are not always about buying. Often they are networking opportunities, moments to stimulate new ideas through dialogue with artists form the area, and needed time away from the daily routine of emails and meetings. Trips — be they for a specific event of an art fair or to support multiple projects under development — provide essential space for thinking, and being in a new place can heighten perception in ways that are ultimately productive for work. This has certainly been the case here in India, where customs and codes of behavior (not to mention driving habits!) are so very different from western models. The past three days have been a sensory overload, with all facets of perception in a state of high-alert, including but not limited to the visual experiences catalyzed through art.

Video/sculpture installation by Suchitra Gahlot

But back to the fair. No doubt this one is difficult to summarize, but understanding that the casualness of “on the road” blogs inevitably promotes generalizations, a few things can be said of the India Art Fair 2012, which is now in its fourth edition. There is a lot of volume at this fair — not only of people but of packed booths filled with art awaiting an audience. Figural works had strong showing, particularly in the more historic booths (the fair was not exclusively contemporary), and paintings outnumbered other media to a significant degree. While some key European and American galleries were present, the Indian presence was strong and visible. In this post, I highlight a few projects that captured my attention, but they are by no means a representative selection of this year’s offerings.

The small disk-like images on this work by Valay Shende represent the families of suicide victims, whose lives as farmers ended in debt and crisis

A new work by Vibha Galhotra

These sixties era photographs by Madan Mahatta document the amazing modernist/brutalist architecture of Delhi, at PhotoInk

An ornate textile work by Chittrovana Mazumdar

Cutout composition by Sachin George Sebastian, in which the paper "petals" resemble buildings or weaponry

A watercolor by Avishek Sen, at Beatrice Binoche

India Journal: Studio visits with Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta

Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander is in New Delhi for the India Art Fair, which runs January 26–29. This is the first of her dispatches from the road. Her first days took her to the outskirts of Delhi to visit the studios of artists Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta.

A detail of a work in progress by Bharti Kher.

Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander is in New Delhi for the India Art Fair, which runs January 26–29. This is the first of her dispatches from the road.

The India Art Fair, now in its fourth edition, opened to throngs of art enthusiasts a few days ago — throngs being a word that takes on new meaning in India. The place was jammed, shoulder-to-shoulder with curious onlookers, teenage gawkers, and a few curators like myself looking slightly bewildered and overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of art and human bodies, all seeming to press up against one another in a crushing array of activity. Full disclosure — on this my first day, I barely saw a thing amidst the hundreds of booths. Instead my art fix came in the form of two memorable studio visits.

Bharti Kher, Delhi, 2012.

Bharti Kher, Delhi, 2012.

The day started with a drive to the outskirts of Delhi, an area called Gurgoan, where artists Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta live and work. Married with thriving independent careers and studios, these artists are among the most visible figures from this region, with representation in major galleries and collections around the world. This recognition took time for both, but has resulted in very active, intense studio careers — though their spaces were free of staff today, a holiday here in India.

A new work by Bharti Kher.

Bharti’s studio is large and welcoming, and our tour began on the upper floors, which overlook fields in an otherwise industrial area. Throughout the building there are finished works and those under development, each at a different stage in its evolution. Much of the work concerns some aspect of the body — including clothes such as scarves and everyday blue jeans, which the artist soaks in a synthetic resin and transforms into static wall-works that have a flowing, almost classical presence (though the garments are undeniably contemporary).

Packages of shapes used for surface ornamentation, Bharti Kher studio

Bharti regularly employs glittery bindi, small adhesive stickers worn on the forehead of many Indian women and said to retain energy and strengthen concentration; shaped like a teardrop, they also evoke sperm or amoeba. Through her practice, Bharti uses these forms in swirling configurations, often overtaking the underlying form in patterns and shapes that range from the aqueous to the ethereal. On the one hand, the configurations appear carefully planned, but in fact the unfold more intuitively. Demonstrating how a path or shape might develop, she brushes her hand across a dusty painting’s surface, leaving a barely visible trail to mark her work for tomorrow.

Subodh Gupta

Across the highway (around, beneath, on the other side–getting there was immensely confusing) we found Subodh’s studio, filled with work for the many visiting guests of art fair week.

Subodh Gupta's studio from above

Subodh is best known for his sculptural works comprised of the familiar vessels of Indian cooking–boilers, rice carriers, pans for frying, and coffee containers, among countless other cookware types. As the artist told me, kitchens are as sacred as temples in India, and shoes must be removed before entering both.

A new "fountain" work in progress in Subodh Gupta's studio.

Clearly the space of food and its many vessels have been of abiding creative interest; a new work made of found pots and pans saved from a scrap heap forms a large fountain emanating from one side of his studio. A quick flick of an “on” switch brings the work to life as water tumbles into pans, evoking not only cooking this time but cleaning. And I like the metaphor: fountains like Tivoli mark the grandeur of historic sites (and let’s not forget Duchamp’s very special “fountain”), but this one is of a more humble constitution, emerging as it does from the small tasks of daily life — namely cooking, carrying things around, and eating together.

Monsoon-weathered skeletons made of clay and plaster align with a well-known skull series by Subodh Gupta.

As the first wave of jet-lag hit (around 4 pm), I returned to my driver-guide to head back to the hotel. To his credit, he had hardly lost his way as we emerged from the city, but getting back was tougher. At a certain point, when a worrisome pattern of weaving through traffic was accompanied by visible head-jerking and nods, I realized that my double-shift driver was struggling to keep awake, as was I. For the next forty minutes, we spoke very loudly and with unnecessarily animated gestures to one another, as we made our way back — safely — to Delhi.