Mike Kelley’s Sublime
LAURA LÓPEZ PANIAGUA, 2019
The aesthetic category of the sublime, central to the Romantic sensitivity, has not been of common use among contemporary artists because, as Prof. Simon Morley suggests, the rhetoric it implies has been co-opted by consumerism in mass culture, and probably also because it has connotations of a grandiose notion of art which is no longer at stake. Nevertheless, thinkers and artists such as Jean-François Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Marina Abramovic, or Olafur Eliasson have expounded upon it, bearing testimony to the fact that it is still relevant in the field of contemporary aesthetics.
The following article lays out the main bases of Mike Kelley’s understanding of the sublime, which is not only interesting as a key to his complex oeuvre, but also because it can be extrapolated in the work of his contemporaries in the time-period spanning roughly from the last two decades of the twentieth century to the first decade of the twenty-first. Like many other artist-writers (such as John Miller, Dan Graham, or Robert Motherwell), Kelley wrote texts on his own work as well as on aesthetics, with the insight of a practitioner and providing a historical perspective that sometimes complemented and others overtly contended that of art historians. In texts such as Ajax (1984), The Poetry of Form (1996), The Meaning is Confused. Spatiality Framed (1999), and Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny (1993), Kelley explains his elaborate notion of the sublime, based fundamentally on the psychedelic experience as well as on psychoanalysis. In my upcoming monograph Mike Kelley: Materialist Aesthetics and Memory Illusions, in which I analyze Kelley’s notion of the sublime in depth, I argue that it is one of the established aesthetic categories that he subverts in order to overthrow the idealist paradigm that has cast its shadow over Western art since the Enlightenment.
Fundamentally, Kelley’s sublime should be understood as a counterpoint to its Romantic version. He became interested in the latter while studying Barbara Novak’s Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875 (1980), where she explains that in the early nineteenth century, the idea of nature was inextricably linked to God. From this vantage point, the aspiration of painters such as Frederic Edwin Church was to generate a sublime experience where the spectator would be overcome by the vastness and beauty of God’s creation, nature, as an embodiment of God itself – a truly religious experience. To this perspective, Kelley responds:
I’m interested in a less elevated beauty. […] For me, psychedelia was sublime because, in psychedelia, your worldview fell apart. That was a sublime revelation, that was my youth, and that was my notion of beauty. And that was a kind of cataclysmic sublime. It was very interiorized, it wasn’t about a metaphysical outside; it was about your own consciousness.
From the Romantic perspective, the sublime is a boundary-breaking experience where humans can momentarily reach beyond their limitations to the exterior and infinite realm of God. For Kelley, the sublime is also an experience of breakage, but the rupture does not occur while reaching towards the beyond, since it takes place entirely within: it is the moment when the limits that constitute reality as we experience it become soft and we perceive our image of the world as a construct rather than as reality itself. This experience can, therefore, be equated with psychedelia, the drug-induced state of consciousness that influenced a whole generation in the America of the sixties. Though Kelley was not a regular drug-user, he did, however, have a few experiences with hallucinogenic drugs in his youth that shocked him and made him question reality ever since.
Therefore, Kelley’s notion of the sublime is related to consciousness, and in particular, to the experience of breaching the habitual frames that organize it. In this sense, he relates his understanding of the sublime to Edmund Burke, who, in his essay A Philosophical Inquiry into The Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime (1757), describes it as an unsettling experience that comes about when the established frames of reference become surpassed – the sublime then becomes a matter of framing. Probably, the artwork where Kelley explores this idea with greater clarity is Framed and Frame (1999), a two-part sculpture that emulates the Seven Star Cavern, a wishing well located in Los Angeles’ China Town. This piece of public art was built around 1950 and consists of an amorphous, cavernous structure, decorated mostly with Orientalist paraphernalia (statues of Buddha and dragons, Chinese lanterns et cetera) which is surrounded by a protecting fence with a Chinese gate. Kelley replicated the ensemble, but displayed the two parts in separate rooms: on one room he showed the fence as a framing device, and on the other, the rocky mass, which, without its “frame”, did not look like a public work of art, but rather, like a chaotic mass of concrete, which is underscored by the kitsch statues and some lumps of colored polka dots that were added by some locals to enhance it. Since Kelley identified framing elements with order and repression, and chaos with eroticism, with his characteristic humor, he hid under the rocky sculpture a secret room for sexual encounters equipped with a little bed, scented candles, and even, a jar of lubricant. In the case of Framed and Frame (1999), architecture (the fence) is the framing device that Kelley investigates, but in other works, he considers elements such as words, numbers, and literal painting frames as agents of order.
As well as to frames and framing, Kelley associated the category of the sublime to the notion of the uncanny as defined mainly by Freud. According to the Austrian psychoanalyst, the eerie feeling of the uncanny is roused with the return into consciousness of some memory, thought or event that was once familiar but that was repressed as a mechanism of self-defense or self-preservation. In a conversation with art historian Thomas McEvilley, Kelley also related his conception of the sublime to Freud’s ideas on sublimation – the substitution of unacceptable desires (in general terms, of a sexual nature) for activities which are well considered, such as art. He explored the idea of art as a social agent of sublimation in the installation Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), where he covered the hallway of the Renaissance Society (University of Chicago) with portraits and quotes of artists and writers (such as William Blake or Georges Bataille) who praised criminal or abusive behaviors. In Kelley’s view, the fact that they were artists symbolically protected them against harsh social criticism. Furthermore, he accompanied the portraits with a painting of the mass murderer known as the Killer Clown, John Wayne Gacy, and an urn to raise money for violence victims. “The paintings allow us to stare safely into the forbidden,” he observed, and that is a pleasure that we must pay for.
The ideas both of the uncanny and of sublimation imply that, in the psyche, there is an area of thought, emotion and desire that is acceptable for the self within certain sociocultural circumstances, and whatever falls beyond those limits is repressed in the unconscious. Therefore, since Kelley understands the sublime as the experience of exceeding one’s frameworks of consciousness, the sublime and the uncanny are related, as with the return of the repressed, one’s psychic limits become surpassed. In this sense, when Kelley speaks about the uncanny in connection with the sublime, he is not offering a different acceptation of the term, but rather, interpreting the sublime as a question of framing (Burke) in psychoanalytic terms (Freud) – the frame here being our psychic terrain of acceptability. In 1993, Kelley took on the role of the curator in organizing the legendary exhibition The Uncanny, displayed at the Gemeentemuseum (Arnhem, the Netherlands), based on Freud’s and, to a lesser extent, Ernst Jentsch’s ideas on the topic. He gathered all sorts of artistic and non-artistic figures (from artworks of Sarah Lucas, Paul McCarthy, Jeff Koons, or Tony Oursler, to medical mannequins, mechanical dolls and waxworks) that would induce the sentiment of the uncanny according to different criteria, which he discussed in depth in his text Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny (1993).
Jacques Lacan’s perspective on artistic sublimation is one last theoretical framework which is useful to regard Kelley’s sublime, despite the fact that the artist did not consider the French psychoanalyst as a reference because he found his cryptic writing style unappealing. Nevertheless, the core of Lacanian theory, as well as the core of Kelley’s perspective on art, is defined by a lack, an inconsistency that every symbolic system is attempting to compensate. According to Slavoj Žižek, for Lacan, “the Real is not the ‘true reality’ behind the virtual simulation, but the void which makes reality incomplete/inconsistent, and the function of every symbolic matrix is to conceal this inconsistency […].” On his part, Kelley suggests:
Dalí’s inspirations (masturbation, exhibitionism, crime love) and surrealism’s basic motivating factor, desire, all point toward lack as the focus of art […] Quite different from a stand-in for the archetype, which must be there, somewhere, the art object is a kind of fetish, a replacement for some real thing that is missing.
Coinciding with this perspective, Žižek explains that, for Lacan, artistic sublimation is elevating the object to the dignity of “The Thing”. This means that an object that would otherwise be considered regular, with no special qualities, gets placed in that void, in that lack, as if it could cancel it out, and thus, grant the symbolic integrity that every subjectivity is eternally (and fruitlessly) in pursuit of. That object becomes then what Kelley would call a “fetish, a replacement for some real thing that is missing”. Kelley’s oeuvre and writings are fraught with surrogates, effigies, and Doppelgängers, from his reflections around Paul Thek’s double in Thek’s sculpture The Tomb- Death of a Hippie (1967), to the Harems of his Uncanny exhibition – a part of the show where he displayed his personal collections of marbles, visit cards and other elements in reference to Freud’s idea of collecting as related to castration anxiety (again, multiplying elements – collecting- ensures replacement in case of loss or lack).
This idea of aesthetics as based on a lack at its center is integral to the novel aesthetic paradigm that Kelley’s work revolves around. While the Western tradition is characterized by idealism, Kelley’s oeuvre, as well as that of many of his contemporaries, can be said to belong to a materialist paradigm that opposes the first. This is clearly instantiated in Kelley’s notion of the sublime: while, according to tradition, the sublime was the moment of contact with a metaphysical plane (the ideal plane), for this artist, the sublime is materialist, it engages the desublimated, common objects of the world and it takes place as an intra-psychic phenomenon. As Kelley writes,
Perhaps this unquenchable lack stands for our loss of faith in the essential. We stand now in front of idols that are the empty husks of dead clichés to feel the tinge of infantile belief. There is a sublime pleasure in this. 
Laura López Paniagua completed her doctoral studies between the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the Freie Universität, Berlin with the dissertation Memory in the Work of Mike Kelley (2015), the first PhD study worldwide dedicated to this artist. López Paniagua teaches on the subjects of contemporary art and memory both at the Department of Cultural Studies and at the Department of Educational Science of the Leuphana University, Lüneburg (Germany). López Paniagua lectures internationally, with recent interventions at institutions such as Bard College, NYU, MOCAD and 21er Haus. She frequently collaborates to art journals such as DARDO, Mousse and Four by Three magazine. Her most recent essays have been published as part of the Catalogue of the Venice Biennale, 2019, May You Live in Interesting Times.