“Since I am an artist, it seemed natural to look to my own aesthetic training as the root of my secret indoctrination in perversity, and possibly as the site of my own abuse...My education must have been a form of mental abuse, of brainwashing.” Mike Kelley
Persistent shame, precipitated by a Roman Catholic upbringing, is an obsessive thread within Mike Kelley’s prodigious oeuvre. His near life-size painting Castrati Satan (1995)—rendered sculptural on shaped wood reminiscent of a vintage cameo—is a portrait of Satan juxtaposed by a ring of cheerful candy-colored dots. Kelley’s devil exhibits all the classic markers of satanic evil from popular culture, from his sharp horns and pointed ears to his triangular, bearded chin and scaly wings. However, like a punchline, his groin is adorned with a beady-eyed yellow alien’s head hovering above a large, swollen brown-purple scrotum. The juxtaposition of wildly gestural ketchup red with a rainbow border of graphic orbs, collaged geometric wood pieces and the meticulously painted scrotum creates a singular cacophonic symphony of color and style that is distinctly Kelley. The massive scrotum paired with Kelley’s title, castrati, is a comical irony. A castrato is a male opera singer with an unusually high singing voice and feminine figure produced by removal of the testicles before puberty: Satan, a commanding masculine symbol of Catholic power and mortal fear.
Castrati Satan, with its dual images of hell and UFOs, is part of Mike Kelley’s Timeless Paintings series (1993-2012) exhibited in 1995 year at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York. That exhibition, titled Towards a Utopian Arts Complex, probed the artist’s vested interest in the controversial phenomenon of repressed memories, unpleasant recollections the mind has suppressed that may be recalled through therapy; theoretically, the effects of these buried traumas can trickle out in unconscious behavioral ways. Kelley began exploring the idea of repressed memory in depth after critics misread his sculptures of found stuffed animals as references to child abuse. “Missing Time” is a specific variant of repressed memory syndrome referring to victims of supposed alien abduction.
The Missing Time project consists of work Kelley made in the 1970s while an art student at the University of Michigan, some revised and some left unaltered, to explore how traditional training and the overarching influence of Pop and formalist Abstraction may have subconsciously influenced his early work. The Timeliness Paintings series, which includes the Cult Paintings such as Castrati Satan, are an investigation into later manifestations of this early training by emulating some characteristics of the student works. As Kelley explained, “My presumption (behind the Missing Time Project) was that my recent aesthetic production must in some way be affected by my (traditional) art training, even though I consciously rebelled against this training.…the “symptoms” of my recent work must be the by-product of elements of my training that I repressed” (Mike Kelley quoted in Mike Kelley exh. cat., Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1997, p. 106.) The loose style of Kelley’s satan is stereotypically “expressive; the abstract green square pays distinct homage to art school darling and modern master Hans Hofmann, yet Kelley’s square acts as a censor bar literally screwed into the painting’s surface, mischievously obstructing visual access. Stated Kelley, “I suppose you could say that I derive some kind of pleasure from this looking back, which could be associated with nostalgia. But I would have to say that I believe this pleasure results more from my enjoyment of the playful, formal, and perverse games of reconstructing and inventing the past than it does from some joyful recovery of lost experience” (M. Kelley, quoted in “Black Nostalgia. An Interview with Mike Kelley by Daniel Kothenschulte,” in D. Kothenschulte (ed.), Mike Kelley, Peter Fischli, David Weiss, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2000, p. 30).
The realities of repressed memory syndrome are hotly debated; while many doctors believe that memories first recalled through therapy are truthful, others suggest that they can be mere fantasies or the product of outside suggestion. Fascinated by our dark impulses and the potential to use painful trauma to advance our own agendas, Kelly explains “If you have a religious orientation, (repressed memory syndrome) comes through Satanic-cult abuse. If you don’t, it might come through alien abduction…. I see this as almost a kind of overarching religion, in which the rationale for almost all behavior is the presumption of some kind of repressed abuse.” (Mike Kelley interviewed for Day is Done, from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 3, “Memory,” 2005, published on PBS.org 9/23/2005). Fearlessly flippant, Castrati Satan probes Kelley’s own supposed creative trauma and revels in nostalgia, while poking fun at the devil himself-- questioning the meaning of fear, shame, truth and myth in our society.
The irreverent, infamous Mike Kelley spent his career tirelessly exploring the underbelly of the suburban American experience, childhood, and religion. Equal parts fascinated and repulsed by the rituals that dominate our everyday lives, Kelly’s mind-bogglingly diverse body of work includes experimentation in performance, painting, video, sculpture, and rock music. Casting aside popular fine-art notions of taste, quality or style, Kelley borrowed from the conceptualism of the 1970s and 80s, Expressionism and Surrealism. A prolific writer, Mike Kelley assigned academic gravitas to traditionally kitsch or marginalized subjects, from U.F.O.s, horror films, science fiction illustration, vintage smut magazines, comic books, outsider antiques and Japanese b-horror film. His prodigious output is strange, fanatical, and completely uninhibited, he is preoccupied with taboo subjects such as bodily functions, sexuality, and degradation. As his close friend John Waters exclaimed, “Isn’t Mike really a magician? Isn’t someone who can make you see something supposedly shameful in a beautiful, hilarious, radical, subversive way really a miracle worker? Even a good Catholic?” (Excerpt from John Waters tribute speech for Mike Kelley, LACMA Gala in the Garden, 2007).