Over the course of his 35-year career, Mike Kelley made a significant contribution to contemporary art. Primarily concerned with the “affect” of his work, as opposed to concerns regarding medium, his practice included painting, sculpture, video, installations, photographs, performance and music. His work deftly encompassed concerns about philosophy, cultural identity, religion, popular culture, education and sexuality.
Kelley was born in Detroit, Michigan, to a working class, Roman Catholic family in 1954. He attended the University of Michigan in the early 1970s and upon his graduation in 1976, moved to Los Angeles to pursue his master’s degree at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). His studies here, were led by such artists as Laurie Anderson, John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler and Judy Pfaff.
During his time at CalArts, and immediately after graduating in 1978, Kelley’s work was largely oriented around the production of, and interaction with performative sculptures. Some of these objects took the shape of instruments, which he then activated in performance. Between 1978 and the early 80s, Kelley’s use of the performance prop opened out to establish in his performances, more of a contextual setting, notably in works such as Indiana, (1978) and Three Valleys (1980).
Kelley’s first video-based project, The Banana Man (1983), based upon the figure of the ‘Banana Man’, who was a regular guest on the children’s TV program Captain Kangaroo, engaged and tragicized the character. His dark humor and employing pop-cultural indicators became a recurring and enduring feature of his work.
On into the 1980s, Kelley gained recognition for his crocheted work with fabric. 1987 work, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin; a crocheted assemblage of found rag dolls, stuffed toys and blankets is perhaps his best-known work within this period of his practice. Kelley saw the soft toys and rag dolls particularly, as metaphorical signifiers for a satirizing of the modernist Expressionism movement.
He attributed his dislike for dominant culture intellectualism partially to a teenage idol of his, Frank Zappa, whose individualized mastery of pastiche and sub-cultural phenomena influenced Kelley’s thoughts about himself as an historical artist, documenting things of interest purely to himself. His knowledgeable writings on horror films, Satanism, Mexican wrestlers and Superman, but to name a few oddball topics, have been called “prodigious”.
In spite of his appropriation of a certain anti-intellectualism, he repeatedly made clear that he did not feel any real liking for the pop culture, which he made satire of. “I think it’s garbage,” he said in one interview. “But that’s the culture I live in, and that’s the culture people speak.”
Kelley worked extensively in collaboration with such artists as Paul McCarthy, Tony Ousler, and the bands Sonic Youth and Destroy All Monsters. Notable works include the video performance project Heidi (1992) in which he worked with Paul McCarthy, and MIT’s 1986 exhibition of Kelley's performance Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile (1985) which included a live performance by Sonic Youth.
Kelley’s work, Educational Complex (1995) in which he made architectural model reconstructions of his past educational institutions and childhood home, addressed what Kelley called, his “bias against architecture”. The piece was also comprised of sketches on paper, recounting his vague memories of the buildings informed the models. The piece has been characterized as “a kind of sick nostalgia”, by Artspace.
Kelley’s works in the latter portion of his career include his celebrated Day is Done (2005), multimedia installation which was first shown at the Gagosian Gallery in which high school yearbook photos inspired a “musical” comprised of series of 32 video chapters. In 2009 he worked with a long-time collaborator, Michael Smith, to produce the six-channel video installation, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery (2009). The installation featured Michael Smith's melancholic and comedic character Baby IKKI as he negotiates a rave-like festival setting. The work, which in total lasts around 2 hours 30 minutes, was meticulously edited by both Kelley and Smith, from many more hours of raw footage.
Kelley was found dead in his South Pasadena apartment in January, 2012 of an apparent suicide. He had seemingly poisoned himself with carbon monoxide fumes which were emitting from an active barbecue set up in the apartment.
Much of Kelley's varied oeuvre is featured by major public and private collections, such as the MOMA and the Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Tate Modern, in London, and the Broad Collection and Museum of Contemporary Art, in LA.
Two Frogs/Two Cats, 1990
four elements--stuffed animals
20 x 69 x 7 inches
eight Cibachrome prints
seven elements, each: 23 5/8 x 16 in
Memory Ware Flat 1, 2000
paper pulp, tile grout, acrylic, beads, buttons and jewelry on panel
70 ½ x 46 ½ x 4 ½ inches
Missing Time Color Exercise (Reversed) No. 1, 2002
Acrylic on wooden panels, magazines and Plexiglas in artist’s wooden frame.
44 1/2 x 110 3/4 inches
Memory Ware #37, 2003
mixed media on wood panel
32 1/8 x 22 1/8 x 3 3/4 inches