Mike Kelley, one of the most influential conceptual artists in Los Angeles, took his own life yesterday, to the shock and sorrow of many in the arts community.

Kelley was best known to comics culture for his last exhibit, the imaginative Exploded Fortress of Solitude, and its predecessor, Kandors. Both exhibits featured not one, but many versions of the bottled city of Kandor. In the latter, museumgoers ventured into an environment of darkened, charred crystalline walls, within which they found the cities as well as other film prop-like items, of more uncertain association:

A pair of wrist-chains secured to the wall, now open. (Was an escaped prisoner the cause of the explosion?) A collection of scraps and detritus labeled “IN LOVING MEMORY OF SANDY,” with the “S” scratched out (the “S,” of all letters) exposing a transvestite or transsexual “ANDY”‘s “secret identity.” Tiny human figures in and out of costume… Kandorians, forced to explore the outside world after something destroyed the fortress? And… a slightly larger Easter Bunny? We must have missed that crossover…

Kelley’s exhibit echoed the best efforts of modern superhero writers to find new adult relevance, postmodern and otherwise, in a series of comics originally marketed to children. To those with only a passing familiarity with Superman, the idea of an exploded Fortress of Solitude may be an upsetting but intriguing novelty. Longtime Superfans will probably remember Brainiac’s nuclear strike in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, an alternate ending to Superman II where Superman destroys it himself (after trapping Zod’s forces inside) or Lex Luthor’s bitter, final betrayal in the Smallville finale.

In any case, “Solitude” was a reminder that even the mightiest things we can conceive of on Earth are ultimately fragile and breakable. And this theme takes on an extra, sad significance as the depression which gripped its creator comes to light.

But the Kandors are beautiful. One of them appears covered in some odd foam, but all of them glow with bright, phosphorescent colors that suggest a more innocent time for comic books, and perhaps for their readers. Figuring them out as objects seems to have been a feel-good exercise for Kelley, too, as he said this in an interview:

I’d referenced the bottled city of Kandor in writings as a symbol for alienation; it has a kind of Sylvia Plath-Bell Jar overtone to me. But I liked that it had the sci-fi element as well. I did a project in 1999 for a show in Bonn– a turn-of-the-century-theme show with a technological slant. So I decided to work with an out-of-date image of the “future.” Kandor is a prototypical “city of the future.” My idea was to link it to the technological “web space” of the Internet– and the failure of that “utopian” system to actually bring people together physically– where people can only connect virtually in a very alienated and disconnected manner.

 

Some years later, I decided to go back and focus on Kandor as a physical object; in the Bonn show there were no bottled cities, only images of it lifted from Superman comic books and presented as collages, and a computer animation of various versions of the city morphing into each other. When I researched it, I discovered that Kandor had never been drawn the same way twice in the Superman comics. It was such an unimportant part of the Superman mythos that a fixed city plan was never developed.

 

That interested me, because I was working on the Educational Complex sculpture– a model combining every school I had ever attended. I was interested in architecture as it relates to memory– how unfixed our memories of space are. I had been trying to draw architectural spaces from memory. My memories of floor plans were all wrong– big patches of space were missing. So I related that inability to remember such spaces to repressed memory syndrome. In the Jablonka exhibition I decided to downplay such references to focus on the beauty of the bottled cities as objects. I produced 20 different bottled cities based on images from the comics; they’re all supposed to be the same city, but each one is unique. I thought that was an interesting paradox– that all of these different models were supposed to represent the same place.

Kelley was known in the community as a warm, passionate and supportive soul. He’ll be missed.