The Late Mike Kelley on Feminism and the (Gender Unequal) Art World

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@ Mike Kelley

“Like I said I was kind of coming out of hippie culture, or freak culture.”

Mike Kelley Interviewed by Lynn Hershman
Santa Monica, California, July 27, 2006

Lynn Hershman: So, this is the Howard Fox statement, this is what he said when we interviewed him, he said that you said publicly that feminism and the way it opened up art about personal experience was an enabler to the type of work you do, did you really say that?

Mike Kelley: I said things like that. I don’t know if that was my exact phrasing. Sure yes.

LH: In what way?

MK: Well my undergraduate training in art, for example, and I think my interest in art doesn’t come specifically out of art it came out of the sub-culture of the sixties was more about the relationship of culture to socio-political concerns. And when I went art school I was really shocked to discover how much things were split on gender terms. Like when you took sculpture it was all men accept for ceramics and things like that and so feminist art was something where that was the only place such issues in art production were starting to be discussed and where you could have some discussion, well maybe I don’t want to make I-beam sculpture. I don’t want to be David Smith. I want to make some other kind of sculpture and what would be the interest in doing something like that.

Now in my background coming up out of Hippie culture such things were already talked about in terms of daily activities like oh you are going to grow your hair to long or you are going to walk around in a dress or you are going to do this or do that? So all of these gender issues were already there in daily culture in a kind of counter culture and I was surprised when I went into art that they weren’t so much operating there at least in kind of dominant art culture. So feminist art seemed to be of course this attempt to bring those kind of concerns into the art world. But I didn’t start in the art world. I started someplace else.

LH: Where?

MK: Like I said I was kind of coming out of hippie culture, or freak culture. I guess not exactly hippie culture because it was not granola like stuff. But you know, like I am from the Detroit area so I was coming out of this anarchist group like the White Panther Party and they turned into the whatever it was, I don’t know the Rainbow People’s Party, when they tried to make their politics a little less anarchistic and more positive and tried to have more overtly, more overtly address issues of women’s rights and sexism in the counterculture and stuff like that. So those were issues that I was already interested in and my circle of friends were interested in when I was in junior high school or high school and I was already doing things for fun that had, that were playing with those kind of things. Like wearing girls’ clothes on occasion, wearing finger nail polish or sewing things just for the pleasure of pissing off my father. You know just those kinds of things.

So then when I went to college and I had to go through endless formal training. That, those kinds of concerns were still there but I couldn’t really address them as much.

LH: But then you went to CalArts, why did you go from Detroit to CalArts? What interested you there?

MK: Well I wanted to get out of this dying city, this industrial wasteland and there was really no serious art scene there and I wanted to be an artist and I you know being from Detroit I was of course very familiar with Chicago and I was very familiar with New York but I wasn’t very familiar with Los Angeles. When I looked at the catalogue for CalArts it said that Allan Kaprow was on the faculty there. It turned out he wasn’t there anymore. A lot of people were teaching there that interested me and I was already involved in kind of multi-media things already and I really wanted to study with Morton Subotnick in the music program and I was somewhat familiar with John Baldessari’s work and conceptualism and such, even though my interests were less on the reductive side. It just seemed like it was a good faculty there and this kind of promise to be able to study in different departments was a lure even though it didn’t turn out to be that easy or really quite true but nevertheless when I got there, it was a rigorous place with a great faculty and well worth going to.

LH: By the time you got there though the feminist program was already gone but still there must have been a spillover in the attitude and the atmosphere there and do you think that had any impact on you just as a young student there hearing what had gone on there?

MK: Not really, but unlike a lot of the students there who, the school had very much a New York orientation but I was really interested in what was going on in the city and I was going to a lot of the things in the city. I knew, say that there was the Women’s Building, I became involved with Lacy very early on and I became involved in the performance programming. In the artists there, there were people who had been involved in Womanhouse and the various feminist programs.

LH: I think you mentioned also that Laurie Anderson came to CalArts while you were there and that had a big impact on you, in what way?

MK: Yes, yes. Well, primarily in her performative strategies, in her mixture of use in text and story telling, trying to do something akin to kind of a music out of that, because I had been involved in Michigan in this proto-punk band called “Destroy All Monsters,” which was kind of a noise band. I think I may have even been familiar with her earliest things from kind of group recordings of New York poets and texts artists and so I was very excited to be able to work with her and she, you know, is a really interesting person.

LH: How long was she there?

MK: I think only a year.

LH: I did even know she was there that long.

MK: At least half a year but then she was around a lot. She was sort of living here on and off at the time. She also went through big aesthetic changes while she was here because when she came, you know she was doing more the story telling kind of thing and by the time she went away she completely changed her look. She cut off her long hair and adopted the spike hairdo and was playing this kind of new wave, you know unisex looking this so she was playing around with various things herself. It was just an interesting scene and because her interests were very much in text and sound, my interests were very much there too.




Poetics Country, 1997 @ Mike Kelley

LH: Were there any other women that were influential to you in those years or since that time?

MK: Well in the faculty, I studied with Judy Phaff was a faculty member who I worked with a lot and Susan Rothenberg was there. Susan Rothenberg was also very supportive and when I got out of school Alexis Smith was very supportive.

LH: And you work a lot, the works and the ideas that you have about gender, where did that start?

MK: Well that’s really not something I started with right away. It really came out of using craft materials and under, when I was at CalArts when there was this very, what do you call it, reductive aesthetic and there were members, students who were there who I was interested in who were doing this thing. Basically there work was just going towards text. I shifted my work away from kind of a more installational works to primarily working with only image and text but as very simple black and white renderings and this was very much under the influence of CalArts and the reductivism of CalArts. Now I tried folkier more hand done look to it because a lot of it there was typing and photo text kind of thing and I didn’t want something like that I wanted something that looked less like it was related to advertising or book design or. Something that still had a kind of hand made quality about it. It wasn’t very aesthetic. I had given myself so many restrictions about what I could not do. It freed me in a lot of ways because I had this very formal training like in the Hoffman manner almost.

Very much influenced by say Rauschenberg and this kind of thing, to free myself of all that kind of play with color and things all of that and formal concerns. Those things weren’t very important and content was more important. How could you make content ambiguous and play with that? But after a while I got tired of it and I decided that I wanted to work with materials that weren’t as associated with the art world so I started buying used craft items and this was very much in response to the discourse of commodity culture and commodity art that was really big in the early eighties, late seventies. And since these things were gifts, presumably, they were not designed to be sold. I found them in thrift stores. They were probably made by a family member, to give to another family member, supposedly they could operate outside of economy or they were designed to operate outside of an economic system and so instead I though, the kind of economy operating here is emotional economy. And so at first I naively thought that these materials could be discussed kind of or be seen in this kind of Marxist discourse but instead everybody saw them as this kind of comment about feminist art or as being about kind of more psycho-sexual issues.


“I started to think about the work more overtly through issues of gender and making it confusing. Is this some play with that? Or is this sissy art? You know and then, what would non-sissy art be?”


Which very much surprised me because everybody knows I am a man and why would they think necessarily that’s what I was trying to do. But then I realized well of course they are going to think that its inappropriate for me to use these materials and there is this preexisting history of some woman artists using these materials. But then I thought, well I am from a generation, which these kinds of overt gender signifiers were perhaps not so clear. For example the women artists of my generation that I felt very close to like Jenny Holtzer or Sherrie Levine were overtly trying to do work that didn’t look like women’s work so I thought maybe I am doing something similar. Like maybe I am kind of doing cross-dressing work. I started to think about the work more overtly through issues of gender and making it confusing. Is this some play with that? Or is this sissy art? You know and then, what would non-sissy art be? And could I start playing it as if I was different producer’s doing different kinds of things in a kind of very overtly schizophrenic way or can you make something that really doesn’t have a gender orientation? No you cannot make anything that does not have some kind of gender connection.

So then the question was, how do you do that? How do you play with that? I must say that I am very much of my generation in that we wanted to escape the problem of essentialism by doing things where perhaps intention was far less clear then say traditional feminist art, like women’s art, where we are going to reclaim these art forms that have been left out of art history. I didn’t care so much about that. I mean I grew up in a place where that kind of art was the standard art and I didn’t have any love for it at all. I thought it was, everyone of my generation thought it was horribly restrictive that a woman could only knit or sew or something like that. Why would you want to be a woman and do something like that? So that caused, that was a big issue at the time, so it was something that I was thinking about.

LH: Do you think that, Jenny Holtzer and Sherry Levine were cross-dressing in the work the work they were doing? Consciously?

MK: Yes. Yes. Well, they were accused by some feminist critics who had said they are doing male work by doing this work that adopts the strategies of advertising or kind of a philosophical discourse or something that was male and they were criticized for that.

LH: And was there anybody else that you knew that was cross-dressing in the other way?

MK: I am sure there were. I would have to . . . let me think about that.

Well I think for example in painting, like Larry Pittman, cause Larry Pittman had studied at CalArts, he was just there a year before me and the women’s program had been very influential on him and pattern painting of course was highly, pattern painting was very much talked about through gender issues. But there were male pattern painters as well but they tended to be gay and so there was this kind of thing about gayness and the female being equivalent at that time. Now as things went of course that fell apart but a lot of things at this period I am talking about, the late seventies even into the early eighties, these terms were not really very defined. There was people of numbers of kinds of orientations playing with different things that perhaps could be in some sense playing with hermaphrodism.

With work in kind of a play something in which gender was floating a little bit. For example around this time you also have, like Laura Anton and Adrian Piper and these women artists, and your work, were role playing and gender swapping and this was simultaneous with glitter rock and early punk in which there was a lot of play with gender switching and confusion. You know in glitter rock towards the female and punk towards the male cause punk rock, a lot of it was kind of this rough trade look, this kind of macho leather boy kind of thing. And women dressed that way as well as men. So both of those sub-cultures played a lot with that. In art there was some of that going on as well though perhaps maybe not as overtly. And also like I was saying in relation to someone like Sherrie Levine a kind of conscious I think adoption of male persona through her re-photography to raise these questions of authorship and gender relations.


“The prices are the difference. But then pricing in the art world is very strange and fetishistic anyway, I don’t know. There are some women who get quite high prices, but I have never seen an analysis of it.”


Of course at the time people didn’t talk about it that way. They talked about it more through appropriation and authorship but I think they just didn’t want to get into the other stuff or it didn’t look like traditional gender-switching art. They couldn’t recognize it. It was confusing. It was okay to talk about Cindy Sherman that way because she is dressing like other women. So it becomes more about the issue of female role-playing and all of those kind of classic feminist concerns. But I really think her work was more complicated in that kind of, she is kind of doing a kind of female drag act. I don’t know, you couldn’t tell how much she really had an investment in these things or whether they were just general cultural clichés. It definitely wasn’t as in your face as something like Jack Smith. It was operating in a much more ambiguous level. A lot of the criticism that surrounded that work tended to want to push very standard readings of it through role-playing, but you know I don’t know.

LH: I wanted to ask you if you think the hierarchical politics in the art work as to who could succeed, who could show, who could sell has changed, have you seen any change? Can you talk about how that changed and why?

MK: Completely. Well I mean look at the work of the Guerrilla Girls. You see how they chart how many artists are showing here and there. When you are in art school, generally its kind of a fifty-fifty, male/female, and when you got into the gallery system it was not that way. But now I don’t see that, I see at least on the surface just as many women showing as men.

LH: The prices are the difference.

MK: The prices are the difference. But then pricing in the art world is very strange and fetishistic anyway, I don’t know. There are some women who get quite high prices, but I have never seen an analysis of it.

LH: You are talking about the counterculture and your work around craft wasn’t necessarily thinking about feminine or the relationship of that to, do you think in retrospect that there was a type of masculinity in art that you were reacting against? And can you talk a little bit about that you were reacting against in terms of a man in terms of reacting against?



Bowling Ball, Bag, Shirt and Catalog, 1991 @ Mike Kelley


MK: Definitely. Well, modernism to me was very masculine in its fixation with order and cleanliness and such. I wasn’t interested in such a thing. I was more interested in a Dionysian trajectory of art. You know I was very interested in the Vienna Actionists and things like that. I was not, when I got to CalArts it was like, this is pretty squeaky clean. It struck me as a kind of intellectualized version of minimalism or high modernism like Anthony Carro. I saw a certain equivalences there in form but they weren’t being talked about because they were of formal signification. This messiness was feminine, it was like hysterical, it was very looked down upon and the male artists who were playing with that kind of thing were very much looked down upon, oh that’s cheap expressionism, somebody like Paul McCarthy was really looked down upon, its hysterical kind of work even though obviously it wasn’t hysterical work it was a kind of conceptualism but. Yea of course that was really what I was doing.

Even when I was an undergraduate I was making sissified glittery kind of Ab-Ex. That just looked pervey cause that wasn’t right, you weren’t supposed to do that and then when I started doing the craft works I said okay then I am going to adopt a more socialized, a kind of ironic position because people at the school at first didn’t know what to make of this weird work I was doing. And so the first craft pieces I was making were birdhouses, I just built birdhouses. Who builds birdhouses? Dad builds birdhouses, right? So, after I built some birdhouses and they were just going, oh you know, after that I would do some sewing and that would screw it all up. Like how do you go from making birdhouses to like sewing a bunch of doilies together? I was most definitely playing with this kind of thing.

LH: And I was curious for you to talk about using really graphic sexual imagery in your work…

MK: I didn’t say sexual imagery. In fact there was a very kind of feminist baggage from the seventies was men weren’t even supposed to image women and women weren’t supposed to image women either and so for many years I would have no overtly sexual imagery or images of women. I would always substitute women with a man. Later, or I would do something that was overtly tasteless. Oh, that’s bathroom graffiti, like that couldn’t possibly be Mike Kelley’s opinion or it was found material that would just re-produce. It wasn’t until later that I started using overtly sexual imagery because I felt that I had worked through that restriction and I felt that those politics had gone on long enough and you had to get past that. You had to be able to deal with the pornographic and that’s when you started to see artists like Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle, people who acted against those earlier restrictions. I mean look. I mean look at what Louis Dean, Carolee Schneemann or Hannah Wilke were held by a lot of women artists, like oh you shouldn’t do that.

You shouldn’t make a spectacle of yourself like that. It took a long time for women, I didn’t want to get in the middle of that mess. I just kept away from that. So a lot of people have this idea that a lot of my work was very dirty or something but generally not. It might have an unsavory kind of intonations about it. It was never very clear but then all of my performances for example were monologues, there was no split in character, you didn’t really knew who was speaking, it was all through he language but then when I did Plato’s Cave in the performance, I didn’t know when it was, towards the end of the eighties, I decided I wanted to work with a female actress and I randomly broke the monologue into dialogue and tried to stage it with some kind of sexual tension like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?”


“I thought it was, everyone of my generation thought it was horribly restrictive that a woman could only knit or sew or something like that. Why would you want to be a woman and do something like that?”


But it wasn’t about that at all, the text had nothing to do with that. It was simply using that structure to bring sexual dynamic and sexual tension into it but it wasn’t real, it was just a façade of that and so I wanted to play with that in a kind of more analytic way. And that was something I liked about say Jenny Holtzer’s work was that you get caught up in the rhetoric of it and then you realize its just the rhetoric, it’s the way in which its written makes you angry. But you realize its not about anything, its about that. Until later when it’s much more about child, connection to the children and things like that. That’s a funny misconception about my art about me being labeled bad-boy and I think this whole bad-boy thing came from the fact that I was using these craft materials and that was be thumbing my nose at feminist art and which was not my intention at all. I felt very misunderstood I think in what my intentions were. I never felt that I was a bad boy, bad relative to certain kinds of reductivism that was in vogue at the time and the fact that I was using things that were kind of lower class origins. I was always surprised when people compared me to somebody like Robert Williams or something like that. Like I was doing some kind of a misogynist or snotty work. I couldn’t quite understand that.

LH: Well it was easier to tear it down as you mention Carolee, when did you feel that it started to get understood for what it was?

MK: Oh I think by you know, the mid-eighties. Then there started to be this break away from this kind of dominance of post minimalism in the art world and you started having a larger group of artists. People like Katie Noland or John Miller or um. Yea and you started seeing a wider group of artists who were really the same age as these other artists but whose approach was less rooted in a kind of earlier art that had already been accepted and was more overtly using things taken from common culture but it wasn’t pop art. Especially too when you started seeing it outside the New York centrality. Like say the first place where I had a lot of success was in Germany. My work bore a lot of relationship to the clone group of artists who were doing a very similar thing there with their own art history. Like making these kind of joke versions of German expressionist paintings and things like that.
LH: Is there anything you want to say?

MK: The only thing I want to stress is perhaps it was somewhat unusual at the time, its not unusual now. Almost every young artist uses something from their own cultural background, but at the time I was in art, I didn’t want to make biographical work overtly biographical work but I wanted to work with terms that I thought were culturally common. But where I came from in my background even mass culture, all these kind of gender issues seemed far more advanced than they were in the art world and I was surprised that there was so much resistance and anger about these issues in the art world and it was so caught up in the trajectory of dominant art history that it just couldn’t accept what had already happened and it took another ten years for that to come to the fort. To the point now where it’s almost a mannerism. I see a lot of work that comes out of directly mass culture but I don’t even know if it’s about that or not about that. Maybe it’s the new pop art, like popular imagery that isn’t about anything except the surface of popularity. But I was trying to do something else.

LH: But you are still continuing that in the work you are doing, just maturing.

MK: Yea of course now I am faced with a lot of generational differences that interest me. The world changes and I have to respond to that and I am a different age and a lot of these things that used to be such big issues aren’t so much anymore and there are other issues.

[End of Interview]



(All rights reserved. Text @ Lynn Hershman. Images @ The Estate of Mike Kelley.)

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