The massive Mike Kelley exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles was initially intended as midcareer retrospective, a collaborative effort between the artist himself and Stedelijk Museum director Ann Goldstein. When Kelley tragically took his own life in 2012 at the age of 57, the show’s organizers would instead be charged with the task of presenting a comprehensive look back at the artist’s body of work in its entirety.

This was no small feat, given that Kelley tackled nearly every artistic medium imaginable: painting, photography, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, and readymades. But the show at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary campus does an impressive job. It is an intense exhibition to be sure; his work is often grotesque and deeply unsettling, exploring a grab-bag of themes such as childhood fear, teenage lust, poltergeist, memory, aspiration and humiliation.

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  Sculpture and video installations including Switching Marys, foreground

To me, the most poignant section of the show was the room of his ‘crystal cities’ series. Kelley was fascinated by Superman comics, and particularly intrigued by the concept of Kandor—the capital of Krypton, and Superman’s native city. In Marvel lore, Kandor is the only remaining vestige of the hero’s destroyed home planet, having been shrunken down to a miniaturized state and enclosed in glass.

crystal cities

Several of Kelley’s ‘crystal cities’ on display at MOCA. Photo by Brian Forrest, image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles

Portrayed in many versions throughout the comic book’s decades-long history, the changing images and enduring idea of Kandor inspired Kelley to bring each iteration of the comic’s Kandors to life. The result is an eerie, very beautiful collection of tiny, glowing metropolises, and the overall effect is achingly sad, and true. Can’t we all relate to Superman’s very human desire to preserve a perfect vestige of his past? The artist well understood that each of us try to hold on to an idyllic image of our childhood within an interior, psychological bell jar.

My visit to the show stretched from morning to late afternoon; I’m still mulling over images I thought were familiar but saw with new eyes at MOCA. Kelley’s work certainly doesn’t always go down easy, which is exactly what makes for a deeply rewarding experience. Great art doesn’t always feel good or look pretty—but rather succeeds pushing us well outside of our comfort zones.