With its brilliant flashing lights and thunderously ecstatic melodies blasting through the speakers, late conceptualist icon Mike Kelley’s (1954-2012) eponymous installation currently on display at Gagosian Beverly Hills flawlessly replicates the jubilant atmosphere of a rock concert. However, upon noticing two screens projecting videos of gospel singers, an illuminated movie marquee, and a gargantuan phallic rocket pointed towards the visitor, one comes to realize that Kelley here is delving into issues of post-war Americana, the Space Age, and the corresponding meteoric rise of rock ‘n’ roll. He also reveals this beloved genre’s roots in gospel music and dissects the bizarre and beautiful relationship between the sexual and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane.
Kelley’s fascination with the realms of faith and song can be traced back to his youth. Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in suburban Detroit, he wholeheartedly espoused subversion in his college years through the formation of the underground punk band Destroy All Monsters with fellow visual artist Jim Shaw. Throughout his eclectic and prolific career, Kelley dabbled in performance, video, painting, sculpture, printmaking, installation, critical writing, and sound art, but always returned to themes of repressed memory, sensuality, science, and societal rules and rituals with a healthy dose of black humor.
Titled Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #27 (Gospel Rocket) (2004–05), this Gagosian exhibition is actually just a small piece of Kelley’s much larger Day is Done project (2005). This vast and ambitious collection includes twenty-five separate yet thematically connected installations complete with set pieces, videos, props, and anonymous high school yearbook photographs. Here Kelley investigates the moral center of small-town America. He finds inspiration in the performative aspect of community activities, such as school dances and plays. In this environment, all the students must grapple with a very structured set of events and rules. Kelley, ever the rebel, pokes fun at this custom of going to church, catching a movie at the drive-in, and seeing a rock ‘n’ roll band perform. Whether it be a teacher, a preacher, a film star or rock star, the artist views all of these archetypes as authority figures with a great deal of power and influence over youth culture.
Gospel Rocket concentrates on collective experience and spectacle. The glowing sign alerts us of a ceremonial rocket launch taking place that evening. On top of the signboard, a luminous red arrow points to the black projectile, which is shrouded in a much larger version of the golden vestments the choir singers are wearing. While science and faith have historically rarely seen eye-to-eye, here Kelley unites these two warring ideologies. In this regard, Gospel Rocket is reminiscent of celebrated late singer-songwriter David Bowie’s hit debut, Space Oddity. Here the psychedelic rocker blesses his astronaut protagonist’s mission as he croons “check ignition and may God’s love be with you” right before the song erupts into glorious splendor and catapults the young Englishman into rock stardom. Here both Bowie and Kelley wrestle with the dichotomy of the United States being a faith-based nation, but also a progressive, awe-inspiring leader in the space race.
As it turns out, rockets lie at the very heart of American society. Francis Scott Key mentions these missiles in the national anthem as a symbol of military might and independence. We as a culture even replicate the rocket’s red glare every year on the 4th of July to celebrate the anniversary of our nation’s birth.
In a smaller adjoining room, the visitor will also find two of Kelley’s famed Lenticular works. Both these illuminated light boxes and Gospel Rocket heavily feature themes of retro-futurism and societal concerns for posterity. Here we see tender images of the uber-modern, fictionalized city of Kandor. In the Superman comics, this is our hero’s birthplace. Although it was widely considered to be destroyed, the villain Brainiac shrunk and bottled the city. Superman rescued the metropolis and then kept it inside his Fortress of Solitude. Kelley crafted these hauntingly lonesome pieces in the lead-up to the new millennium in 1999. He began forging these pieces in alienation and anxiety surrounding the fate of humankind. The artist used these works to question whether this violent streak inherent in human nature end up destroying us all. Here he merges the sleek, streamlined Bauhaus and glamorous, romantic Art Deco aesthetics to balance these depictions in realism and optimism. Due to the holographic, lenticular nature of these works, the images change as the viewer roams around this cozy nook. With this variety of views of Kandor, these drawings have a dynamic, ephemeral quality. 2007’s Lenticular 15 perfectly exemplifies this emphasis on the transitory as Kandor seems to appear and disappear depending on the viewer’s angle. Lenticular 4 even features an ominous yellow haze, like the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.
In the postwar age of H-bombs and in now again in our uncertain world, these Lenticulars and Kelley’s fearsome rocket remind us just how quickly it all could end. Technology truly is a double-edged sword. All it takes its the push of a button to wipe out hundreds of thousands of years of scientific progress and culture. However, throughout all of this apprehension, there is still much joy and hope to be had in the form of uplifting vocal harmonies and the human gaze forever pointed towards the heavens.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.