“Mass Murderer Paints Pictures in Prison—& Warped Art Collectors Buy His Junk!” That Feb. 13, 1990, National Enquirer headline referred to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was then selling his clown paintings from a cell on Illinois’ death row. The Enquirer called Gacy “the darling of offbeat art collectors,” though it failed to supply much evidence of that. The reporter should have dug deeper. A Gacy painting had been central to one of the most important museum shows of 1988.
That was “Mike Kelley: Three Projects” at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society. This career-defining exhibition launched Kelley as one of the pivotal artists of his generation. It presented Half a Man (the dolls, banners, and garbage drawings), From My Institution to Yours (the politically incorrect office humor), and a new commission, Pay for Your Pleasure. All three elements are now on view at MOCA Geffen.
In a post last week I discussed Kelley’s interest in the Chicago Imagists and their appreciation of outsider art. The Renaissance Society exhibition brought Kelley directly into the Chicago-outsider orbit. His commissioned piece, Pay for Your Pleasure (above, in the 1988 installation) was inspired by the then-raging media controversy over Gacy’s art career. The Renaissance Society described it as “an installation conceived by Kelley specifically for… the city of Chicago which will address the legacy of John Wayne Gacy.… With this, we, as members of this community, can ask which of our institutions and desires are responsible for confining Gacy as a criminal and yet freeing him as a celebrity.”
John Wayne Gacy, a twice-married suburbanite, was the sort of implausibly functional serial killer favored by TV writers, a man able to pass for normal and go unsuspected over a long story arc. Gacy raped, tortured, and murdered at least 33 boys and men and stashed the bodies in the crawlspace under his home. Named “the third most outstanding Jaycee” in Illinois, Gacy managed three Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets and a contracting business. He was known for playing a clown at children’s parties and charity fundraisers. As with some TV villains, Gacy’s name was ironic. He was John Wayne, epitome of American masculinity, broke bad.
After his conviction, Gacy assumed a new identity as outsider artist. This must have been motivated by the rising profile of outsider art in Chicago circles, the media, and the art market. Gacy spent over a decade in prison, painting and corresponding with Oprah, Truman Capote, and evidently Mike Kelley. John Waters owned one of Gacy’s paintings. It was a gift; Waters thought it was ugly and kept it in the attic.
I’ve never heard anyone propose that Gacy’s paintings are actually any good. The 1990 National Enquirer article mentions not a single Gacy collector beyond an unnamed member of an L.A. punk band. (Not Destroy All Monsters?) Still, the issues Gacy raised are always with us. Caravaggio killed a man. The art market’s favorite Chicago outsider, Henry Darger, had a disquieting enthusiasm for imagining violence against children (above). As far as we know Darger never harmed a fly (as Norman Bates says at the end of Psycho). The same cannot be said of stand-your-ground killer George Zimmerman, who sold a painting on eBay for $100,000.
Pay for Your Pleasure consists of 42 oil-on-Tyvek paintings of literary, philosophic, and artistic figures, with quotes on the theme of art, crime, and morality. Taking an idea from his teacher John Baldessari, Kelly had a commercial sign painter execute them. Originally the paintings were mounted in the hallways between University of Chicago classrooms. That’s why they’re different sizes. Shown alongside these paintings was a 1988 Gacy self-portrait, Pogo the Clown, representing a clown guise that Gacy invented and registered.
In the photo of the Chicago installation, the Gacy clown painting is in one of the glass cases otherwise used to display sports trophies or faculty members’ books. Next to it is another key element of Pay for Your Pleasure, a collection box for visitor contributions. Anything raised was to be donated to a victim’s rights organization.
“In the late ’80s,” recalled Kelley’s student Ophelia Chong, “people were starting to get interested in serial killers—those morbid serial killer books, and those John Wayne Gacy paintings. It was creepy and funny, totally ridiculous. Mike was the kind of person who drew me into that world; he saw the humor in it.”
Some may cringe at the word humor in this context. But Gacy was a running gag in Kelley’s circle. Frances Stark recalled a “roast” for Jorge Pardo, a heavyset man who grew up in Chicago: “One of the jokes was like, ‘Jorge’s only alive today because he wouldn’t fit under John Wayne Gacy’s floorboards.’”
The sensibility of the sick joke is central to Pay for Your Pleasure. “Almost laughably,” wrote Kelley, “art in the prison context is promoted as useful sublimation—as ‘therapy.’” He cited “the wonderful parody of this idea” in John Waters’ films such as Female Trouble. Pay for Your Pleasure is thus a sardonic goof on the notion that art has the ability to redeem serial killers—or anyone else. (George Zimmerman wrote in his eBay listing: “My art work allows me to reflect, providing a therapeutic outlet…”)
Kelly proposed that “criminals themselves, safely filtered through the media, serve the same function” as artists. Both, in Susan Sontag’s words, “are devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible.” “We are not interested in Gacy’s brushwork or images,” wrote Kelley, “we are interested in the man behind them, the person capable of incredible atrocities. The paintings allow us to stare safely at the forbidden.”
MOCA acquired Pay for Your Pleasure in 1989, as a gift of Timothy P. and Suzette L. Flood. Kelley reconfigured (and greatly improved) the piece for its post-Chicago life. The paintings of great thinkers now line two sides of a long alley. The one-point perspective is a Hitchcock dolly zoom directing attention to the criminal artwork.
That’s no longer Gacy’s clown. Kelley decided to make Pay for Your Pleasure site-specific. He required that it always be shown with the artwork of a local criminal. Thus four different criminal artworks have been shown with Pay for Your Pleasure in the current Amsterdam-Paris-New York-L.A. retrospective. MOCA has always shown Pay for Your Pleasure with a colored drawing by “Freeway Killer” William Bonin. In Bonin’s picture, a goateed man contemplates mathematical equations—as if calculating the dollar equivalent of the viewer’s voyeurism.
On May 10, 1994, Gacy downed his last meal of fried shrimp, fried chicken, strawberries, and French fries. Hours later, he was executed by lethal injection. Four days afterward, 40 Gacy paintings were auctioned for as much as $800 each. The most determined bidder was Chicago businessman Joe Roth. He vowed to buy as many Gacy paintings as possible and burn them. Roth was described as “fed up” with media coverage of Gacy’s paintings and wanted his artistic output “wiped off the map.”
“Often I have trouble with institutions following my instructions,” said Kelley in 1999. The Seattle Art Museum was then hoping to show Pay for Your Pleasure. The search for a local psychopath-artist drew complaints from victims’ groups—who vowed to reject any collection box proceeds as blood money—and from folks who believed their tax dollars were going to support a “Creative Murderer” (as one headline had it). Hoping to defuse the controversy, SAM curator Tara Reddy offered this clarification: “Kelley has said that the painting could be the work of any violent criminal and does not have to be by a ’serial killer’ as such.” Seattle TV news campaigned against Pay for Your Pleasure, complete with B-roll of the Columbine High School shooting. Faced with that, SAM threw in the towel.
Much of the art considered challenging is created to reassure art audiences that the world’s problems could be solved if only those “other people” would listen. Pay for Your Pleasure confronts the big question about the existence of evil, and neither the philosophers nor Kelley have comforting answers to give.