Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescence

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw (pictured below) were born in urban Michigan during the 1950s. By the time they were art students in the early 1970s, they’d seen all the stuff you don’t study in a University of Michigan classroom: doodles drawn in ball-point pen on lined paper while the teacher isn’t looking, fundamentalist tracts, album covers, semi-professional local ads, cable-access shows, comics, sci-fi paperbacks, D&D manuals, second-hand children’s book covers, toy packages from the dime store, pinups, and posters for high school plays. They collected that material, imitated it, and mashed it together in their gallery art and for the stage performances of their punk band Destroy All Monsters.

 

Their two-man gallery show, “Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw” (MSU Broad Museum), evokes the claustrophobia of adolescence, when you realize that you’re being raised to play a role in a society that you don’t much like. All those adults coming at you to tell you what to believe and do feel like monsters from a late-night horror film. Kelley, who died in 2012, was explicit that his adolescence was miserable.

That wasn’t my life. I was raised in a protective family, encouraged to explore a wide range of paths, and basically in love with the world. Yet I can summon memories of, say, junior high school in Syracuse, NY circa 1980 that powerfully evoke Kelley and Shaw. I was a half-generation younger, so when they were blasting their “noise rock,” I was afraid of big kids like them. But the graphic art and music of their cohort formed the backdrop for us early Gen-Xers.

For me, these guys evoke something more specific than perennial adolescent claustrophobia. They witnessed the particular disappointment of Rust Belt America when manufacturing crashed and the postwar promise turned out to be hollow. Black people and women captured some power in cities like Detroit and Syracuse, and everyone got permission to be a bit more free–just as capital and opportunity drained away. Kelley and Shaw were white boys watching a society that seemed unfair or cruel to others and pretty hollow for people like them. Out of that experience, they made some powerful visual art.

See also: Detroit and the temptation of ruin.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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