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 MOCAD‘s curator of education and public engagement Amy Corle, and MOCAD gallery attendant Mike Donigan. As curator, Amy Corle is in charge of programming the ground floor of Mike Kelley’s “Mobile Homestead“at MOCAD, and Mike Donigan is the gallery attendant for the exhibitions held in the “Mobile Homestead.”
Below is a transcript of our exclusive interview with Amy and Mike, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
And check out our companion interview with Munich-based artist Justin Lieberman discussing the Mike Kelley x Supreme collab.
StockX: Thank you both for talking about Mike Kelley with us. Would you please introduce yourselves?
Amy Corle (AC): My name is Amy Corle, and I’m the curator of education and public engagement at MOCAD. And part of my responsibilities is to oversee Mike Kelley’s “Mobile Homestead.”
Mike Donigan (MD): My name is Mike Donigan, I am a gallery attendant at MOCAD. I give brief overviews and explanations about the exhibitions that take place at the “Mobile Homestead.” Prior to working at MOCAD, I was mainly interested in underground art from the 1960s onward and Mike Kelley was one of those names that would constantly come up every time I did research on underground artists.
Who was Mike Kelley?
AC: Mike Kelley was an artist born in Detroit, Michigan in 1954. He received a BFA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from the California Institute of Arts. He is best known for the cover of the Sonic Youth album, “Dirty,” with the stuffed animal on the cover. People tend to recognize that. Most people don’t know that he’s done work in almost every media imaginable and he’s excellent in all of them. I think he’s one of the most influential artists of our time, and I do not say that lightly.
Give me your elevator pitch describing Kelley’s work.
AC: I say he grew up here, in a blue-collar suburb of Detroit. And he grew up to be one of the most influential artists of our time. His work varies from…
MD: It [Kelley’s work] deals with all sorts of different topics. It deals with psychology; it deals with trauma. It’s very relatable from that standpoint. Everybody has something that they may feel strange about in their own life. He tried to describe that in his work.
I think he shows the dark side we all tend to ignore.
Amy, you mentioned “blue collar” in describing his upbringing. What role did class play in his work?
AC: I mentioned blue collar in reference to the “Mobile Homestead” because it’s a replica of the house he grew up in, from Westland, Michigan. It’s very much the house of an “everyman.” It’s a generic, suburban, New England-style ranch.
MD: In Westland, this type of house is very ubiquitous.
What is the “Mobile Homestead”?
AC: The “Mobile Homestead” is an exact replica of Kelley’s childhood home. He built it with the intent that it would serve as a community gallery and gathering space. A place where the community could come to suggest what types of exhibitions they’d like to see and hold meetings. So we have AA meetings here, we have “Showing up for Racial Justice” meetings here. Any community group is invited to use the Mobile Homestead for meetings. All they have to do is request to use the space and we do our best to accommodate them. The purpose of the “Homestead” is that it is programmed by and for a diverse public. In the “Homestead” the community chooses what art is shown.
As the name implies, it is also mobile. The front part, the facade, comes off and there’s a trailer hitch. It can be pulled by a truck on the road to communities throughout Detroit for community service.
MD: When it’s parked here it’s used as a gallery space where exhibits rotate on a quarterly basis. Although the schedule changes from season to season.
AC: It also represents a reversal of white flight. The suburbs coming back to downtown Detroit. It also has a private side. The top, the first floor, is all for the public and used by the community. But it also has a basement and a sub-basement that goes down about 40 feet. The basement and the sub-basement are private, for use by the artist only. So it represents the subconscious, and perhaps there are repressed memories that are locked down in the basement.
It also represents a reversal of white flight. The suburbs coming back to downtown Detroit.
How did the “Mobile Homestead” end up at MOCAD?
AC: Kelley originally wanted to buy the house he grew up in, but the owners wouldn’t sell it to him. So he decided to make his own version. Marsha Miro, the founder of MOCAD, was an art critic and collector, and she knew Kelley. They talked for seven years about developing the project. Eventually, they decided MOCAD would be caretakers and Detroit was the most appropriate place for it to be.
Discuss some of the major themes and ideas Kelley’s art explored.
MD: Throughout his career, Kelley delved into the topic of psychology. A lot of it dealt with what Kelley considered “popular psychology.” Some of the things he focused on may not be the warm and cuddly things you would normally associate with stuffed animals, which he’s most well known for. In essence, he dealt with things that people don’t really like to talk about.
AC: Kelley explored repressed things present in our culture. Embarrassing things like sexual dysfunction and the scatological. The drama, and trauma, of high school. He’s skeptical of societal norms, too. High culture in particular.
What’s one of your favorite Kelley works?
MD: I’m really interested, from a psychological viewpoint, in this piece he worked on creating an orgone accumulator shed. An orgone accumulator was this really out-there thing created by this psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1940s. Willhelm Reich combined his ideas of free love and the fusion of sex and politics in a box that “liberated” peoples’ orgasms. Kelley made it into a tool shed.
AC: Mine is a body of work called “Educational Complex,” of which the “Mobile Homestead” is a part. He made architectural models of all the places he experienced throughout his life, with the home being the first site of education. So he made models of all the schools he went to through graduate school. He made them from memory. So they look very precise but you’ll get to parts of them where it gets fuzzy: there’ll be rooms missing or blank spaces. I love how it is exactly your memory of school.
Discuss Kelley’s use of found objects in his art.
MD: He would go to flea markets, on occasion, and pick up stuffed animals. I think he was looking for things that the normal everyday person wouldn’t be looking for. I know in the early 1970s when he and Jim Shaw were starting Destroy All Monsters they were picking up thrift store guitars and old vacuum cleaners and trying to make interesting things out of them. It was a practice that carried over with them when they moved to California in the late 1970s. He would just go to flea markets and find stuffed animals or other things. I think he came into his own when he started using stuffed animals and dirty things discarded by parents.
AC: It’s a junk aesthetic. It’s part of his high art/low art exploration. He took junk and turned it into high art. I think it’s ironic of him taking junk and turning it into paintings that sold for so much money. He has a famous painting “More Love Hours” that’s about the pointlessness of effort. Think about all the effort people would pour into making something for you. He’d go to thrift stores and see toys and afghans that some grandmother spent so much time making and they were just discarded.
MD: And later on he would go dumpster diving and he’d find buttons and things like that and make “Memory Ware,” which is something very Midwestern and folksy. I think he got a kick out of making something high-art out of something considered low-art.
Discuss Kelley’s connection to punk and post-punk.
MD: Destroy All Monsters was a group he started in the early 1970s with Jim Shaw, Niagara, and Cary Loren. Later on, he had a cast of other characters that would join the group. It started out as a noise band or a proto-punk band that morphed into a punk band after Kelley and Jim Shaw relocated to California in 1976. After that, in California, Kelley began forming and disbanding a series of bands that would be classified as post-punk. People considered them to be very artistically advanced music or weird music.
Tell me about “Ahh…Youth!” (1991).
MD: It was something that Sonic Youth helped bring into the mainstream. The artwork was a bunch of photographs of dirty stuffed animals and Kelley included a picture of himself at the end when he was 18. I think he was considering himself a part of that dirty, disgusting project.
AC: I think it’s an interesting refraction of “selfie-culture” where people take selfies and manipulate them to try and make sure that they don’t look like they actually look. Kelley didn’t hide any flaws.
Tell me about “Reconstructed History” (1989).
MD: He was taking things from high school history books and cutting them up and making them into comedic pieces. What he did was take things that every kid tends to do in school and masterfully turn it into high art.
What does Kelley’s work reveal about late 20th century and early 21st-century American life, if it does at all?
AC: I think he shows the dark side we all tend to ignore. How ugly the world can really be and how we push that down by wanting and buying new, shiny things.
Why do you think Supreme chose these specific Kelley works?
MD: The 90s are cool again. Mike Kelley’s work became more widely known in the 1990s. So nostalgia…
AC: Mike Kelley is, without debate, one of the most drop-dead cool artists there is. Check your art history. He was just always challenging, doing something different…
MD: He was a punk artist…
AC: You get street cred with his work, for sure. I’m pretty sure he would hate being called a punk artist.
Why do you think the Mike Kelley Foundation chose to work with Supreme?
AC: I have no idea. I think he would like it… Maybe?