We’re taking a closer look at the recent Mike Kelley x Supreme FW18 collaboration with two exclusive interviews. In the interview below, we spoke to Munich-based artist Justin Lieberman. Lieberman, an accomplished artist in his own right, is also a leading Kelley expert; he is the author of the 2006 book, “Mike Kelley: 1975-1994 Works” (2006), available for purchase here.
Below is a transcript of our exclusive interview with Justin Lieberman, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
And check out our companion interview with MOCAD’s curator of education and public engagement, Amy Corle, and gallery attendant Mike Donigan discussing the Kelley x Supreme collab.
Please introduce yourself.
Hi, I’m Justin. I’m an artist. I live in Germany. I have a pet turtle named Robert Wilson. He just barely made it into the country because right after we moved here, Germany declared him an “invasive species.” What would you expect though? Germany for Germans and all that shit. He owns the gallery where I show my small drawings. He’s an aspiring filmmaker too.
Who was Mike Kelley?
Mike Kelley was a performance artist, who also made a lot of drawings and sculptures. A lot of people want to know what kind of guy Mike was. Maybe this story will give you a clue. Once me and Mike were fishing in a tiny rowboat in Cape Cod. All of a sudden, a giant lobster hooked a claw over the edge of the boat and pulled itself in. Mike said, “Holy Shit! Look at that Lob-Eye clabberin into the boat!” I said, “Um Mike, the word is CLAMbering, not CLABbering.” Mike KNEW I was right, but he refused to accept it! He said “clabbering” sounded better, therefore it was the correct word. I think that story kind of gets you inside Mike’s head. The way he thought about things.
How would you describe his work?
Mike’s work made sense to me at the beginning. We both lived in LA and worked together at this taco stand next to the La Brea Tar Pits. Mike was in charge of heating up the beans and warming up the taco shells and stuff. I could relate to that because cold tacos are gross. Then he had this whole other art thing he was doing. Drawings of blobs and jumping around naked in rooms with no furniture. He made some weird birdhouses that he said were art. Whatever floats your boat I guess.
Discuss any major themes/ideas Kelley’s art explored.
Mike was into comics. He had a band for a while, called the Poetics, with his buddies Tony and John. They were TERRIBLE. They never really practiced. He hated work, that’s probably why. He liked advertising jingles. “The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup!” He was always humming that jingle.
Artists are always stealing whatever is cool and slapping their names on it.
Discuss Kelley’s use of found objects.
Mike was always dragging home whatever kind of weird junk: lots of stuffed animals. But he didn’t really find them. He bought them, from thrift stores and flea markets. I dunno if he ever used anything he just FOUND. Then he would mangle the stuff. Also, he was always making up little stories about it. The mangling and the stories were more important than the stuff. But he was picky about it. It couldn’t be just whatever. Then there was always this big ordeal about whether he would keep the thing or use it for some art project. Like he wanted to have the thing and also use it. So sometimes he would have to get two of the thing.
Discuss Kelley’s video art and performance art.
Oh yeah, those videos. Sometimes it would be like a kid’s tv show. Sometimes it would be more like some long boring documentary. They were definitely funny.
Discuss Kelley’s connection to punk and post-punk.
Mike talked about that stuff sometimes, but really, he thought it was pretty stupid. He mostly listened to classical music and jazz. He loved Bach’s “Crab Canons,” and he loved Beethoven. And advertising jingles.
Do you believe that contemporary artists are “akin to cultural anthropologists”? Does this apply to Kelley and his work?
Probably they are, which is too bad. Artists are always stealing whatever is cool and slapping their names on it. Anthropology isn’t even real science. Same for biology. All that “studying humans” and stuff. Our friends Ted and Nino used to say: “It’s just trolls staring at each other.” Sounds right to me.
In the 70s and 80s, Mike drew a lot of cartoons and made some funny paintings. His stand-up routines were great. But eventually, he did get sucked into that anthropology bullshit. Mike liked trolls though. Those ones with the hair.
Tell me about “Ahh…Youth!”
Mike with his toys. Yep, that was a good one. Mike was always having little tea parties with his toys. He had names for all of them. The way they made those photos was Mike set up a tea party with all of his toys so they were all sitting in a circle on the floor. Then he lowered a camera from the ceiling into the center of the circle. Each person would take a sip of tea, and then the camera would take a picture. That’s where the “Ahh” part of the title comes from. Because right after one of them would take a sip of tea, they would go “Ahhh” like “Ahhh, this tea is so delicious.” Not many people know that.
Actually, though, it was Mike who would say it every time. Because the toys couldn’t talk. But if you said that, Mike would get really mad. Like we all had to pretend they really were saying “Ahhh.” Mike used to brag about how he was this great ventriloquist, but I could always see his lips moving.
Tell me about “More Love Hours.”
It smelled. Mike had a bunch of old tea party rejects. They were the ones who had made some kind of faux pas at one of the tea parties and got banished. But he couldn’t bring himself to give them away. But he still held a grudge against them. So he decided he was going to sew them all into a huge monster. Like the crazy blob creature at the end of “Akira.” Which he did. Then he felt bad about it. He was like “Why did I do this to all my friends?” Mike had a sadistic side.
Tell me about “Reconstructed history”
Some people think that Mike took some old history book illustrations and scribbled on them. But actually its the opposite. The scribbles were already there, and Mike made these beautiful engraving-looking things over them. I know that because I made the scribbles on a big pad that was sitting by the phone in our house. Not even thinking, just scribbling some nonsense. Then Mike was like, “These are great, let’s make them a collab!” I was like “Sure, man, whatever you want.” But then he had to show off by making these drawings over them that were like Rembrandt or some shit. Then I was like, “Oh great, now if it’s a collab people are just gonna think I am like some 5-year-old and Mike did all the work.” So I was like, “Those should just be yours,” you know? People don’t realize what a good artist he actually was.
Mike was like “Burning Man is bullshit” way before it was cool to say that.
What does Kelley’s work reveal about late 20th century/early 21st century American life, if it does at all?
A LOT OF STUFF! First of all, Mike predicted that Kanye was gonna go all MAGA. He KNEW that before it happened! ALSO, Mike basically invented Facebook. Not only that but the housing bubble! And Etsy! Also, Mike was like “Burning Man is bullshit” way before it was cool to say that.
What does the Mike Kelley Foundation do? What types of work do Artist Foundations do for deceased artists?
The problem with working for a dead guy is that you can never tell if you are doing a good job. The dead guy is never coming over to your desk to give you back pats or shoulder rubs. He’s not appreciative if you go the extra mile for the company. So it involves a lot of personal initiative. You really need to have a lot of confidence that you know what you’re doing. You can’t be second guessing yourself all the time.
What do you know about streetwear? What do you think about streetwear?
Streetwear is just like some other kind of wear that nobody wanted, so they put it out on the street in a box that says “Free.” Except here in Germany it says “Zu Verschenken.” I think it is cool when people do that, but only if they wash and fold the clothes first.
In the Bible, Cain gives a shitty sacrifice to God and Abel gives his best stuff. That’s the story that holds the answer to this question, as far as I’m concerned.
What do you know about Supreme?
When I think of the word Supreme, I’m immediately wondering what the next word is. Supreme What? That’s the question. And there’s really only one answer:
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe.
Why do you think Mike Kelley’s work was used on clothing?
OK, let’s be honest. Mike Kelley’s work is not exactly being “used on clothing.” I had a t-shirt once that was a little too small. I also had a pretty big framed drawing by Mike Kelley. So I took the t-shirt and stretched it over the frame so it would get bigger. THAT would be “using Mike’s work on clothing.” What is really being used on the clothing, in this case, is some kind of machine printing process. I have no idea what kind. When I was a kid, we had iron-on shirts.
Why do you think Supreme chose these specific Kelley works?
Probably they were the ones that were around? It would be really interesting if they somehow determined that these pictures were the ones that were most likely to survive a certain number of trips through the washing machine. But I bet they didn’t put that much thought into it.
Do you think Kelley would mind being a collaborator with Supreme?
I think that if he minds, he will give us a sign from beyond the grave. But it is up to us to recognize that sign and heed it. We really need to pay close attention if we truly care about the answer to this question.
Why do you think the Kelley Foundation chose to work with supreme?
I bet they were hanging out and Supreme was like, “let’s make some t-shirts” and the Mike Kelley Foundation was like, “Cool, I know where we can get 3-packs of Russell Athletic t-shirts for 7 bucks.” And then Supreme was like “No, we already have tons of blanks, let’s just use those.”
Is the Kelley x Supreme “collab” a posthumous jab at popular culture?
This question made me think of a tombstone with spikes on it for keeping pigeons away. I definitely wouldn’t want those on my grave though. I like pigeons a lot. They are welcome at my grave.
And then Supreme was like “No, we already have tons of blanks, let’s just use those.”