Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Rebellious Yet Tender Exuberance: Mike Kelley (1954-2012)

Mike Kelley’s death by apparent suicide at age 57 sent a wave of shock through the art world two weeks ago.  He was a commanding force, already part of the canon.  A native of Wayne, Michigan, Kelley studied at CalArts in the late 1970s under John Baldessari and Laurie Anderson.  He is perhaps most well-known for his early installations and sculptures incorporating thrift store blankets and rag dolls.  His dolls were either stuck to a flat canvas in works like More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987) as a twisted sort of childhood portrait or would be wrapped in mildly phallic bundles, as in Frankenstein (1989).  In any event, Kelley addressed the pathos and nostalgia inherent in his materials as a way to tackle issues of normative family systems.  A musician as well as visual artist, Kelley imbued his work with the ethos of punk, adeptly undercutting the sanctity of “American values.” Kelley formed an early relationship with Metro Pictures, famous in the mid-eighties thanks to its promotion of  “Pictures Artists” Sherry Levine and Cindy Sherman, forging a second wave of success for the gallery alongside Louise Lawler and Tony Oursler.

Photograph of Mike Kelley by Cameron Wittig.  Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Photograph of Mike Kelley by Cameron Wittig. Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Addressing early-on his distaste for popular culture, Kelley was perhaps an unlikely pioneer of the postmodern movement, yet his penchant for disassembling, appropriating, and remixing has made him a poster-child for the period.  By reconfiguring thrift store finds, Kelley ingeniously played upon the tension between their surface qualities and cultural significance.  Critic John Welchman explained Kelley’s particular style of “aesthetic disobedience” as a political tool designed to expose and reject the social mores inherent to American culture.  This notion was first evidenced by his collaboration with Tony Oursler during the late 1970s for Destroy All Monsters.  Part performance art project part noise band, Destroy All Monsters enjoyed resurgence in the 1990s when Thurston Moore rereleased a collection of the band’s music on his label Ecstatic Peace.

Kelley’s collaborations with fellow provocateur Paul McCarthy throughout the late 1980s and 1990s always felt like a natural pairing. One of the duo’s more hilariously disturbed works was the 1987 video Family Tyranny in which McCarthy demonstratively smushes wet plaster into the face of a crude mannequin, chanting “they’ll remember it, don’t let them forget it.”  Mike Kelley plays an infant for the tape, shown crawling on the floor in a desperate attempt to escape the scene.

The artist’s first retrospective “Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes,” appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993 before traveling to Los Angeles and Munich, and was succeeded by a survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona in 1997. A third survey took place at Tate Liverpool in 2004.  More recently, Kelley produced the installation Day is Done (2005) for Gagosian Gallery, creating a sensory-assaulting environment jam-packed with shrieking voices, a maze of installations, and three hours of videotape.  While Ben David at artnet Magazine called the work nihilistic, Jerry Saltz preferred the term “Clusterfuck Aesthetics.”  The artist’s legacy continues with yet another retrospective of his work slated for the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam at the end of this year, traveling to LA MOCA in 2014.  Just last month, Mike Kelley was announced as a featured artist in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, his eighth appearance in the show, capping off a thirty five-year career embracing a wide host of media.  The skeptic of popular culture is now imbued in the very fabric of our visual world.  He will be sorely missed.

What would Mike Like? Tributes to Mike Kelley by Jane Hart, Dave Kudzma and Janese Weingarten

Mike Kelley, Arena #7, 1990.  Found stuffed animals, wood, and blanket 11 1/2 x 53 x 49 inches. Courtesy of Skarstedt Gallery, New York
Mike Kelley, Arena #7, 1990. Found stuffed animals, wood, and blanket 11 1/2 x 53 x 49 inches. Courtesy of Skarstedt Gallery, New York

The tragic news of Mike Kelley’s death reverberated throughout the art world with countless individuals already expressing their grief, shock and – initially  — disbelief that it could be true that an individual so passionate about his art and life could be gone. A tribute concert was held in Los Angeles for him on February 7 with throngs of those who loved and admired him in attendance. A poignant memorial shrine continues to evolve in Highland Park (and a related Facebook page), accumulating a fitting hodgepodge of detritus in an abandoned lot minutes from where he lived and worked.

I met Mike while living in Los Angeles. We had collaborated on a large-scale photographic project for a solo show he had at Metro Pictures in the late ‘90s. His unique vision and dedication to his art were unwavering. I feel so very privileged to have had the chance to get to know him through our varied encounters.

Now living back in South Florida, I had the opportunity to reminisce about Mike with two friends that had both been among his longtime studio assistants: artists Dave Kudzma and Janese Weingarten, both also recently moved back to Miami. We each felt a sense of being disconnected from all of those– his nearest and dearest– back in Los Angeles who have experienced the full force of this loss to the contemporary art community.

Mike had a very loyal circle of close friends who in a sense made up his “family”:former loves, Anita Pace and Emi Fontana; contemporaries Jim Shaw and Paul McCarthy;and many younger artists who had come into contact with him through studying with him or working at his studio compound. He touched peoples’ lives in a very substantial way—through his tremendous sense of humor, unquenchable curiosity of the human condition, and an all-encompassing devotion to his work which spanned so many forms.

Though undoubtedly among the world’s most acclaimed artists, Mike shunned the more glamorous aspects of the art world. Throughout his success he remained very down to earth, although always driven where his work was concerned. He was both accessible and private. Dave and Janese remarked how he enjoyed simple pleasures of life’s daily routines — lunch at a handful of local spots, sharing odd stories of the news of the day, the silly thrill of a cool thrift store find— all the while reveling in the arduous process of putting together his often monumentally sprawling projects.

For those who knew him and/or were touched by his work–life will not be the same. What will be remembered most are his boisterous laugh, rebellious yet tender exuberance and a transformative expression of all that sparked his unbridled imagination.  Jane Hart

Dave Kudzma adds: Working for Mike Kelley could be challenging and difficult as he was so involved in the production of his work, but that said, he was also a really great human being who was inspiring and fun to be around. I went out to lunch with him almost every day and it was always as Mike’s friend. He would never talk about what was going on at work; instead we would usually amuse ourselves by discussing pop culture, music or television and movies. Funny thing about those lunchtimes was that Mike only went to five or six restaurants in the immediate vicinity of his studio.  I would occasionally try to get some other place added to the roster, but the only one I ever succeeded with was Sizzler. I will always remember those good times at those few special restaurants. Lunch with Mike was always the highlight of my workday at Kelley Studios.

Janese Weingarten adds: When I first started working for Mike Kelley I made costumes for his movie “Day Is Done.” Some costumes were made from thrift store clothes that I would modify. At the thrift store I would look for cool, vintage tchotchkes that were inexpensive. When I would show Mike the finished costume I included the tchotchke as a present in order to hear the big laugh I loved so much. Sometimes it was hard to tell if Mike liked the project that you were working on, but, if you got the “big laugh” you knew you were on the right track. So, forever more in life I will always think of Mike when I thrift shop. I will think ….What would Mike like?