When I was a kid, I could eat bowl after bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal, I loved that stuff. I’d eat all of the weird yellow barrels first, then save all of the crunchberries til the end for one really satisfying spoonful. I’d eat so many bowls that the top of my mouth would feel sore from the grainy texture of the yellow barrels shredding my thin, uneven, roof-of- mouth skin. Even though I loved the cereal, I hated the look of the lurid pink milk leftover in the bowl, just looking at it nauseated me, acting as a sordid reminder of all the sugary sloshing about that must be going on in my belly, and all the more lurid for the duration of time it sat as I dodged around the crunchberries in my quest to save them ’til last.
Now view Mike Kelley’s work, and take a few days or a week off to do so, because in his lifetime of artmaking, he made a plethora of work. From nude ladies and nude frog paintings to giant room-sized sculptural grottos that appear covered in dryer lint with little shiny coloured bits and bobs dotted about, to stuffed animals fused together in shapes resembling rag rugs, giant pendulous balls, logs or maybe just long turds. Now weave all that into his many Superman references or his (in)famous Pay for Your Pleasure, a 1998 installation comprised of a hall of portraiture by poets, philosophers and one sneaky mass murderer, up to the viewer to guess which is which.
Kelley’s work has been called ‘punky’, ‘sexualized’, and ‘tongue-in-cheek’, but it’s impossible to classify in easy mouthfeel phrases. His work is visceral, you feel it not with your heart or your head, but with your gut. And here’s what it feels like: it’s not the first bowl of Cap’n Crunch wherein you’re hungry and the milk is cold and fresh, nor the second, nor even the third. It’s the after part when the milk is lurid pink and your mouth is shredded and sore, but you still have that memory of sweetness reminding you that you must have liked it to have done this to yourself, and will do it again to yourself tomorrow.