Kelley’s career already had too much momentum to be derailed by this proactive sabotage of what could have been a warm and fuzzy reign as the King of Yarn Doll Art. I wasn’t as impressed with it at the time as I am in retrospect — I like some sugar with my medicine. But I now realize that if Kelley had persisted with his easily sentimentalized, rainbow-hued craftwork, I would have quickly lost interest — not only for the lack of formal novelty, but most significantly because it would have signaled the exhaustion of the artist’s insurgency, his surrender to a process fueled by nostalgia.
Instead, Mike Kelley has become that rare artist whose work can attain the same levels of intellectual and formal engagement for more than 25 years — witness his most recent show at Patrick Painter: the sprawling, spectacular Black Out that ranks among his strongest works. His current projects include a three-volume anthology of his cranky, hilarious writings edited by John Welchman for MIT Press (Volume 2 is due in February 2004) and the launch of his own Compound Annex record label to distribute his extensive catalog of experimental audio, including the long-awaited three-CD reissue of his proto-punk noise band Destroy All Monsters.
Rather than allowing it to dictate his art, Kelley has turned nostalgia against itself, creating a body of work that explores repressed memory, systems of archival categorization, and the impulse to self-mythologize with seemingly inexhaustible formal inventiveness and a skepticism sorely lacking in most of the swooning, delusional art world. If you have to look back and pick a defining moment from an era, it’s best to pick one that points out the perils of rose-tinted idylls and 20/20 hindsight.