It’s the banners that grab your attention. Swastika-shaped clovers, dicks and skulls, hanging like the remnants of a deranged rally. It’s masculine, ugly and nihilistic. But also more than a little tongue-in-cheek.
The other part of Mike Kelley’s exhibition at Brunswick’s Neon Parc gallery, the video works, play from scrappy old TV sets propped up on suburban paraphernalia – old barbeques and an abandoned mattress – all freecycled via Gumtree.
It feels ironic in the bright, white cube of the gallery. “We’re trying to replicate his persona and energy,” says the gallery’s owner, Geoff Newton, of the American punk artist.
Kelley worked in Los Angeles and died in 2012 in an apparent suicide. Newton says his influence can be seen in the work of plenty of young Melbourne artists. But Kelley's been overlooked – there hasn’t been a significant show of his work in Australia since the Sydney Biennale in 1984.
The banners were originally made in 1989, as part of a live performance piece with a dance choreographed to a Motörhead song (this performance isn’t included in the show). Even removed from that context, they work as pieces in their own right.
But to keep the performance element alive, Newton’s also planned a series of live gigs to accompany the show.
Working with noise artists and bands such as Sonic Youth (he designed the cover for classic LP Dirty), Kelley always had one foot in the music world. Melbourne sound artist Philip Brophy and Menstruation Sisters will perform on the makeshift stage at the back of the gallery over two Saturday nights in November.
The video piece of the 1989 performance shows a different side to Kelley: Family Tyranny/Cultural Soup, a collaboration with Californian contemporary artist Paul McCarthy, addresses child abuse. Kappa deconstructs the myth of Oedipus. Both take on big topics, but with the same irreverence and lo-fi weirdness of the banners.
Kelley didn’t come from a classically trained background. He stole from pop culture, with one goal in mind: “to scrutinise it, to discover what is hidden, repressed, within it,” as the artist himself once said.
It’s all very adolescent. Kelley himself revelled in the immature: “The adolescent period interests me the most,” he said in 1988, a year before these banners were made. “Adult art has to get involved in questions of faith and belief, and I don’t have any faith or belief, so I don’t want to make adult art. I’d rather make adolescent art.”
Mike Kelley is at Neon Parc, 15 Tinning Street, Brunswick until December 17.