Mike Kelley’sKandor series ranks among the artist’s more enigmatic projects: a series of sculptures, videos and installation work that works the origin mythologies of the Superman comics into the fabric of the artist’s own life and work. The works are equally desolate and comical, peculiar and commanding in their execution, often rendered in glowing hues of purple, red and yellow, or countered by immense chunks of sculpted detritus, recreating the titular hero’s Fortress of Solitude.
Mike Kelley, City 5 (2007-09), via Art Observed
These works make up the first show of the fall season at Hauser and Wirth’s Chelsea flagship, a powerful summary of one of Kelley’s last projects that offers a distinct perspective on his intertwined interests in pop mythologies, psychoanalytic tropes, and their intersection with the artist’s own life. “It represents a flip of autobiography into a sort of mythology” Paul Schimmel noted at the press preview, an event that also marked the gallery’s first exhibition of the artist’s work.
Mike Kelley, Kandor 4 (detail) (2007), via Art Observed
Kandor, Superman’s home city and the capital of the planet Krypton, exists in the comic’s universe as a miniature, stolen back from the hero’s nemesis and preserved in a jar in his arctic hideout, a memento that stands as both a testament to his own identity apart from the human race, and his failures to save his planet from destruction when he was a child. Recreated here, Kelley’s Kandors are a recurring formal container, explored as a rocky landscape, geometric cluster, or any number of variations that mirror the changes in artistic direction in the past century of the comic’s history. Surrounding these works with sculpture, video and lenticular, wall-mounted works, Kelley’s fascination with the shrunken city seems to hint at a distinct interest in the parallels of heroism and dysfunction that seems to sit at the core of so much of his work.
Mike Kelley, Kandor 4 (detail) (2007), via Art Observed
At the center of the exhibition, however, is the massive Fortress of Solitude, turned from its frequent depiction as a glittering palace to resemble a bombed out cluster of stone and piping. Viewers can climb inside its craggy facade to view one of the Kandor sculptures inside, giving its soft purple glow all the more affect given its stark surroundings.
Mike Kelley, Kandor 10B (detail) (2011), via Art Observed
Taken as a whole, the work presents a look deep into Kelley’s perception of his own work, where the core ideal seems locked away, preserved as an inspirational force in the face of the herculean efforts of his vocation. Taken in the wake of the artist’s suicide in 2012, the exhibition is a harrowing investigation of Kelley’s interests in the psychological undertones of cultural touchstones, and the tragedy of his final years.
One unexpected thing I witnessed during the opening of the New York art world’s fall season this week was Paul Schimmel—whom the Los Angeles Times once described as having “a more impressive record of exhibitions and acquisitions in the field of art” than any other American curator since 1950—taking some time to art historicize Brainiac, nemesis of Superman. This happened at a preview of an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, the gallery where Schimmel is a partner. The show focused on work from Mike Kelley’s “Kandor” series, which the artist labored over fairly obsessively from 1999 up until taking his own life in 2012.
Kandor is the capital city of Krypton, Superman’s home planet. Krypton was destroyed by its own unstable core. Superman survived when his doomed parents sent him to Earth. Kandor itself survived the planet’s destruction because Brainiac shrunk the city to a size that would fit inside a glass bottle and stole it, which probably isn’t worth getting into any further here. Superman recovered the shrunken city, and placed it under a bell jar with its own atmosphere inside his secret sanctuary, the Fortress of Solitude, where, in the words of a 2010 artist statement by Kelley, “it functions as a constant reminder of [Superman’s] past and as a metaphor for his alienated relationship to the planet he now occupies.” That this description could serve as a broad thesis statement of Kelley’s mercurial career—and, in a sense, to the creative mind in general—is not lost on me.Hauser & Wirth’s current Chelsea location, on West 18th Street (they’re moving to West 22nd Street in 2018), is a big and cold building, and it resembles a hangar. In fact, to call it a Fortress of Solitude would not be a wholly inaccurate description, though that is also a touch too cute. Schimmel was standing in a darkened room inside this building in front of a large group that included a representative sample of many of the employed (and a lot of the unemployed) art writers currently based in New York. Everyone stood among a cluster of Kelley’s resin sculptures of Kandor in various forms (the design of the city, as Kelley points out in his artist statement, was never standardized, even in the comics). The sculptures are all of cities, but they resemble different clusters of sterilized sex toys—most of them phallic, some of them vaginal, they are materially uniform, and there are no details in the forms, just clusters of shapes. They were resting on pedestals, each eerily glowing on illuminated bases that vaguely lit up the room. Schimmel was talking.“Brainiac,” he said, “who I never thought I’d ever talk about in an art-historical framework, was trying to steal cities all throughout the universe. Remarkable. In a way, Brainiac was a stealer of cultures. And in some respects Superman himself had to partake in that moral dilemma of sort of taking and holding.” He stretched this to the matter at hand: “And Mike was like that with the history of art. He felt maybe like Picasso in that he could just sort of take it all in—whether it’s references to Flavin, or Clyfford Still, or Roy Lichtenstein, or to the original source material. Mike, at this extraordinary period in his life, had all these resources together.”Other art-historical reference points Schimmel raised when talking about this work were Mondrian, Constructivism, Surrealism, Joseph Cornell, and Matisse. He was a real trooper, though, about the nature of the work, always bringing his talk, in an endearingly clunky way, back to the comics. Gesturing to a green “Kandor” sculpture with stalagmite-like towers, Schimmel said, “You don’t really think about the kinds of meaning these lights and colors represent. This,” he motioned to the sculpture, “which is so beautiful, kind of like the Emerald City, is also the color of the very mineral, of the very source of Superman’s weakness! Kryptonite, which glows green, is in a sense the most beautiful, and also the most deadly.” And here again, driving the point home: “I think that says a lot about Mike and his relationship to signs and symbols. And his own moral dilemmas.”Since Kelley’s death, the “Kandor” series has been exhibited more frequently than the artist’s other, more iconic work, like Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991)—little clouds of sewn-together stuffed animals that emit the smell of disinfectant—and the remarkable video-heavy series, “Day Is Done,” which includes nightmarish recreations of images from high-school yearbooks. It is “Kandor” that has been revisited as a kind of period at the end of Kelley’s sentence. “Kandor” comprised Kelley’s final gallery show in his lifetime, at Gagosian in London, which garnered a review from the Guardian with the headline “It Came From Planet Bunkum.” Months after his death, a retrospective of the “Kandor” works—many of them now on view at Hauser & Wirth—opened at the Watermill Center in the Hamptons. “Kandor” was given significant real estate in Kelley’s traveling career retrospective, with a stop in New York at MoMA PS1 last year, where the “Kandor” works were installed at the beginning of the exhibition, acting as an introduction. Hauser & Wirth’s size allows for a fairly elaborate installation—including Kelley’s re-creation of the Fortress of Solitude, rendered cave-like rather than blanketed in crystal ice, as it often is portrayed in the comics. Visitors to the gallery can walk into the cave and people of average height can stand up in it comfortably, though one has to wear little white booties to do so, which dampers the installation’s intensity a bit.The room with the cave also includes Kelley’s video Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais). In the video, a gang of baroque thugs—one of them is dressed something like the Riddler, from the Batman comics, another is a more colorful Alice Cooper, wearing a codpiece—kidnap a bride on her wedding day, take her to the Fortress of Solitude and chain her to a wall in order to sexually humiliate her. It’s difficult to watch, but maybe harder to look away from, like a car wreck.It was funny listening to Schimmel perform his awkward verbal gymnastics, attempting to weave a three-cornered argument that included the whacky DC comic-book universe, Kelley’s artistic practice, and elements of the artist’s autobiography, but looking at the “Kandor” works makes me incredibly sad. This may have something to do with their proximity to Kelley’s suicide, or it might be because I don’t believe the work stacks up to the rest of Kelley’s career. Curators and dealers seem to be pushing for Kandor as a major part of Kelley’s legacy—or maybe the work is just easier to get on loan—but either way I find so much of it to be mediocre. “Kandor” seems to me to be the product of a man endlessly tinkering with an idea but never really getting it to arrive anywhere beyond Kelley’s general metaphor of alienation that I quoted above.In other works, Kelley mined his memory for the depths of this alienation. In Educational Complex (1995), for instance, he created what appears to be a fairly dull maquette of an office building, but the structure is, in fact, a scale model of all the schools Kelley ever attended as well as his childhood home, reconstructed from memory, with various gaps. What begins as a little underwhelming architectural mock-up is actually an exhausting psychological exercise—an artistic return of the repressed. He took this idea even further in his final piece, which he worked on at the same time as “Kandor,” Mobile Homestead (2012)—a replica of the house he grew up in, located on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, not far from the location of the real home, in Westland, Michigan. The house itself serves as a community center. Beneath it is an underground bunker that can only be reached through a complicated network of tunnels and which Kelley, before his death, intended to use as a private studio, literalizing the idea of mining the depths of one’s memory for the sake of art. I would have liked to see the work he would have made there.“Kandor,” on the other hand, is mildly pleasing on an aesthetic level, but cautiously avoids any actual meaning. Kelley at his best offers a glimpse into the mind of someone who never felt like he belonged anywhere, of an artist who is acutely aware of how hard it is to have to wake up everyday and simply exist in the world. I look at “Kandor” and can only think of Kelley working away, trying to distract himself from this very fact, preferring instead to just be left alone forever.
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Enter a Dark Comic Book in the Final Works of Art World Superhero Mike Kelley
Superman never felt fully at home on Earth. A refugee from the planet Krypton, sent away from his dying planet as an infant, his alien physiology gave him superpowers on Earth but prevented him from relating to its inhabitants.
So, when Superman discovered that the Kryptonian capital, Kandor, was in fact not lost but had been shrunken and bottled by a villainous foe named Brainiac, he rescued the city and its people and stashed it away in his Fortress of Solitude, where it remained a safe but haunting reminder of his past.
In the last series works by the late, great Los Angeles contemporary artist Mike Kelley, Kandor is explored extensively, from its varied depictions in the Superman comics to the ways its narrative overlaps and contrasts with Kelley’s own autobiography—which is also filled with bouts of deep loneliness and isolation.
“Mike Kelley: Kandors” at Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea gallery space contains just over 20 artworks, including sculptures, illuminated lenticular paintings—in these, images appear and disappear as the viewer moves around the artwork—large-scale installations, and video, some of which were included in his posthumous retrospective at MoMA PS1 in 2013-2014.
In the first room are Kelley’s glowing, jewel-like sculptural variations of Kandor. The works were all created using molds and, while they are editioned works, each version is slightly different depending on the material used to create the surface texture.
Kandor’s first appearance in the Superman narrative came in the 1958 issue of Action Comics #242, drawn by Al Plastino. It appeared in the comics many times, but was always rendered differently by the various artists who contributed to the series. Kelley’s inspiration for the Kandor sculptures and lenticular paintings were the inconsistencies of the source material, ever-changing representations of the futuristic alien metropolis.
But Kelley was equally interested in the flip side: themes of sex, debauchery, and social disorder appear in the last gallery of the show, with the climactic large-scale installation Exploded Fortress of Solitude, a set based on Superman’s arctic safe space. In the video, a striking departure from the rest of the show, a band of miscreants sexually abuse and beat one another inside a blackened Fortress of Solitude, where a bottled Kandor glows fiery magenta in the background.
Kelley had even bigger plans for Kandors. Originally, he had planned a project in 1999 called Kandor-Con 2000 for the group exhibition “Zeitmenden: Ausblick” at the Kunstmuseum Bonn. His vision was to create crowd-sourced versions of the city based on fans’ input via the internet, to build digital and physical versions to show at the museum, and even hold a convention for the fans at the opening.
“Mike Kelley” is open through October 24 and Hauser & Wirth New York, 511 West 18th Street.
Review: Mike Kelley Uncorks Superman’s Kandor City in a Bottle
By KEN JOHNSONSEPT. 10, 2015
The artist Mike Kelley produced more than 100 sculptural variations on the motif of Kandor, the capital of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. Thirty of them are on display in a new exhibit at Hauser & Wirth. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
During his last decade, Mike Kelley (1954-2012), one of the most influential artists of his generation, devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to a theme from Superman comics: the city of Kandor, capital of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. Before Krypton was destroyed by a chain reaction in its radioactive core, the space archvillain Brainiac shrank Kandor and put it and its live inhabitants into a bottle. Years later, the grown-up Superman wrested the bottled city away from Brainiac. Unable to restore Kandor to its original size, he kept it in his Arctic Fortress of Solitude, along with all his other memorabilia.
Mr. Kelley produced more than 100 sculptural variations on the motif of Kandor. They typically consisted of renderings of a futuristic city in colored resin covered by bell jars, which were connected by hoses to gas tanks or air compressors. (Because Earth’s atmosphere was toxic for the people in the bottle, a constant supply of Kryptonian air was required.) Illuminated by internal and ambient lights and presented on various platforms and pedestals, the Kandor works are materially sumptuous and metaphorically tantalizing.
Why was Mr. Kelley so preoccupied by this story? A captivating exhibition of 30 Kandor works from 2007 to 2011 at Hauser & Wirth offers some answers and a few clues for speculative interpretation. Called, simply, “Mike Kelley,” the exhibition delivers a mordantly misanthropic vision of contemporary life with terrific theatrical élan.
The show begins with an installation in a dark room of eight Kandors cast in jellylike hues made to glow by lights built into their pedestals. Next comes a multipart piece called “Kandor 4,” which consists of a large, clear glass bottle connected to a big, red air compressor; three city models cast in red, yellow and blue urethane; and a video projected onto the wall showing a bottle with swirling colored gases inside. Nearby is a set of Kandor images lifted from comic books and made into back-lighted, lenticular panels in which the city appears and disappears depending on your viewing angle.
Then you come to the most impressive and revealing part of the show, an expansive 2011 installation titled “Kandor 10B (Exploded Fortress of Solitude),” which has never been shown in the United States. It’s paired with a video, “Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais),” depicting the darkly comical, sadomasochistic activities of some fancifully costumed people within and around the “Exploded Fortress.” (“Vice Anglais” refers to erotic flagellation.)
Some background is helpful. In the late 1990s, Mr. Kelley wanted to produce an event to be called “Kandor-Con” as part of a group exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in Germany in 1999-2000. He intended to create a website by which to connect with Superman fans from around the world, and he planned to have as many as possible come to the museum for a conference like Comic-Con. In a 2010 essay, he wrote, “I wanted to draw a comparison between the bell jar and the Net, presenting the Net surfer as a lonely, disembodied individual.” For financial reasons, that project never came to fruition, but had it succeeded, he wrote, “ ‘Kandor-Con 2000’ would then truly have functioned as a real celebration and meeting place for like-minded people.” Whatever else they’re about, the Kandor works have centrally to do with loneliness and isolation.
In his essay, Mr. Kelley claimed that he had no personal interest in the Superman mythos, which seems contradictory. It’s hard to believe that he didn’t in some ways identify with that Man of Steel. Because of his superhuman powers, Superman leads a split and lonely life. Among regular people, he disguises himself as an ordinary, ineffectual fellow. He has friends but none who know him deeply. As his true, superself, he’s even more isolated. When not preventing catastrophes, he keeps to himself in his Arctic retreat. As for Mr. Kelley, while he was an artist of nearly superhuman productivity and inventiveness, he was severely depressed, a virulently isolating condition that led him to take his own life. (In a video from 1999 not in this show, Mr. Kelley had an actor playing Superman reading passages from Sylvia Plath’s novel, “The Bell Jar.” Considering that Ms. Plath also committed suicide, that’s chillingly prophetic in retrospect.)
Mr. Kelley’s “Exploded Fortress of Solitude” is unlike Superman’s icy palace. All black inside and out, the “Fortress of Solitude” is a life-size bunker built of plastic foam carved and molded to resemble a construction of concrete blocks, stones and solidified lava. Some parts are cut away and scattered about the gallery, but the primary structure remains intact, and viewers can enter its dark, cavernous interior. Here you find one of the show’s most fully realized Kandor sculptures: a glowing, pink city of simplified modernist buildings on a powder-blue base, all under a bell jar over three feet tall. At the end of the cavern, a rough niche whose surface is covered by glittering pieces of costume jewelry alludes to treasures often discovered in mythic caves and in psychoanalytic spelunking.
A video projected on a nearby gallery wall was inspired by a high school yearbook photograph of a scene from an unidentifiable theatrical production. Mr. Kelley’s film projects what might have lurked in the repressed unconscious of that innocent image: a subterranean theater of lust and perversity, which he set within and around the “Exploded Fortress.” During the video’s 24 minutes, a menacing man in a green top hat and paisley dress repeatedly threatens to use an ear of corn to anally rape an anxious clown in a football uniform. A Sadean libertine administers a bloody whipping to the bared buttocks of a woman in a wedding dress, and, in an especially illuminating scene, he kneels to contemplate the glowing, bell-jar-covered Kandor inside the “Fortress.” Here, a personification of Dionysian excess draws close to a vision of Apollonian order, yet remains separated from it by its glass container.
In effect, that moment asks, How do we reconcile our capacities for high-minded idealism on the one hand, and our impulses for cruelty, disorder and destruction on the other? That Mr. Kelley offered no way to integrate those opposites is a large part of what makes his art so unsettlingly, pessimistically provocative. That he could not — or would not — envision a middle ground, a place where ordinary, messy life might flourish with all its complications and contradictions, was his tragedy.