[ART REVIEW] Mike Kelley "Kandors" At Hauser and Wirth Explores Some of the Last Works of The Best Artist of His Generation

I try to not speak in absolutes, but I really believe that Mike Kelley was the best artist of his generation. His work demanded attention, and at times could be equally frightening, radical, revolutionary, and poignant. His Kandor project, that he started in 2009 and worked on up until his suicide in 2012, is one of the most aesthetically beautiful and emotionally powerful bodies of art created over the last 30 years. The Kandors are the primary focus of the new Hauser & Wirth exhibition, ‘Mike Kelley,’ that opened last night.

The exhibition combines Kelley’s deliriously ambitious sculptures, videos, and an installation consisting of manmade rock formations and a cave (the cave you can walk through, and it’s amazing). It’s hard to really sum up the feeling elicited walking through the exhibition, but to get the most out of it you really have to know what the Kandors actually represent and what they mean to Kelley.

Kandor is named for the city that stands as capital of Krypton, home planet to Superman. Kandor was stolen by Superman's nemesis, Brainiac, who stole cities throughout the galaxy and then froze them in time as an immoral means to the greater end of saving his own planet. Kelley’s interests in comic book archetypes go beyond an adolescent love of comic books. Kelley’s work often tackled huge, universal, emotional, heady themes: good, evil, love, loss, suffering, cultural preservation, youth, rebellion, establishment, nature, nurture, industrialization, labor, and the list could go on and on.

In Kandor, you could draw up any number of explanations that Kelley would find interesting about the concept. I tend to believe that Kelley was particularly drawn towards the moral dilemma behind Kandor. Brainiac may have been evil from our point of view, but in his, he was merely trying to save his own planet. It almost feels like a comment on the modern American city. Our cities utilize culture from around the world, but in stealing those cultures we are also preserving them and utilizing them as gestures of creating the American dream. This sort of dilemma would have been intriguing for Kelley, an artist who was in a constant state of rectifying his channeling of a variety of cultures. Kelley was himself not interested in Superman, but saw in it a universal communication. “I felt the popularity of the narrative would lead me to a large number of people who have a common interest,” says Kelley.

Kandor is represented in the exhibition by a group of illuminated sculptures made of tinted urethane resin on illuminated base. Each of the sculptures represents Kandor as depicted by different Superman illustrators. Each represents the vision of a futuristic city by decidedly futurist minds.

Brainiac didn’t destroy Kandor; instead he shrunk it down to miniature size. Later, Superman would retrieve the Kandor and place it in his ‘Fortress of Solitude’ where he would go to reflect on his life on Earth as a superhuman and his alienation because of it. Kandor symbolized a constant reminder that he was not from this world, and it’s hard not to believe that Kelley wasn’t reminded of himself in this notion. In the final room of the exhibition, you will find Kelley’s massive envisioning of the Fortress of Solitude, ‘Kandor 10B (Fortress of Solitude). Kelley literally created a grouping of rock formations, with the centerpiece displaying a gigantic cave that the viewer can walk through. Within that cave sits the shrunken city of Kandor. The cave represents a place of reflection and platitude, not only for Superman but also for Kelley. Considering how his life ended, it’s easy to argue that Kelley had grown weary of the chaos of the world and his place as a figurative “super artist” within it. Like Superman, his work represents a beacon of hope within a world that always seems to collapse on itself. But Kelley could go into this Fortress of Solitude and invite those that shared his optimistic beliefs: artists, performers, and art critics. Kelley’s film, ‘Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36,’ that was shot using his ‘Fortress of Solitude’ as a set, is projected alongside the installation. The film features four fiends performing various acts of sadomasochism and hyper-violence on one another. It’s difficult to figure how this film moves along the idea of the rest of the exhibition, but I believe that the ‘Fortress of Solitude’ represented a place for Kelley to share his ideas with people he trusted, free from the archaic rule of the established order outside. It is a temple of artistic expression. Here he could make his art, makes his films, and most importantly, be himself. Superman had his Fortress of Solitude, and Kelley had his.

I know this review might be a bit all over the place, but that’s exactly how I feel after witnessing the exhibition. It elicited so many ideas, but it is painstaking to funnel one to completion. And I think that is the only way to evaluate Kelley’s work. Just use the theme of the work as a springboard and let ideas jettison through your skull. His work isn’t just emotional; it’s physical. It’s transcendental. 

Mike Kelley "Kandors" will be on view until October 24 at Hauser and Wirth, New York, 18th Street. text by Adam Lehrer. photograph by Tenlie Mourning

Adam Lehrer is a writer, journalist, and art and fashion critic based in New York City. On top of being Autre’s fashion and art correspondent, he is also a regular contributor to Forbes Magazine. His unique interests in punk, hip hop, skateboarding and subculture have given him a distinctive, discerning eye and voice in the world of culture, et al. Oh, and he also loves The Sopranos. Follow him on Instagram: @adam102287