Mike Kelley Photo: Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Mike Kelley, the LA-based artist known for his riffs on American popular culture, died in South Pasadena last week in an apparent suicide at the age of 57. This sudden news came as a shock to a lot of us in the artistic community, where Kelley was such a daring creative force and personality. Never one to seek approval from his audiences or kowtow to an intellectual elite, he made smart, often audacious work that fearlessly tackled subject matter that others avoided — religion, repressed memory syndrome, and adolescent sexuality, among others. He trolled in a variety of media, from performance to sculpture, painting and installation — whatever best suited his interests at the time.
A few years ago we met while he was working on the Kandors installation, an arrangement of eerily-illuminated glass-bottle miniatures derived from the Superman story (Kandors is the capital of fictional planet Krypton that super-villain Brainiac steals and shrinks). Like much of Kelley’s work, this series came straight out of vernacular culture, but with a psychological twist that distinguished his work even at its most playful. The main subject of conversation was, however, the 1980s’ Craft Morphology series, commonly known as the “plush toy” project. These were objects the artist made in the late ’80s and early ’90s that incorporated stuffed animals in various arrangements, including the famous More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987), a painting-sized wall work of once-loved teddy bears, afghans and knitted dolls assembled in a seemingly carefree arrangement. The works stirred their share of controversy when they first appeared from those who saw child abuse and trauma in their forms, but the artist was alway available to clarify meanings for the misguided. In an interview with critic Isabelle Graw, he once said, “If you don’t write your own history, someone else will, and this ‘history’ will suit their purposes.”
A lot of histories can be written about Mike Kelley, and already the stories of his passing have foreshadowed their narratives. A voracious appetite for punk music and youth culture (he was in a band with fellow artist Jim Shaw called Destroy All Monsters) gives way to Mike Kelley the Performer, one of his many artistic personalities. Kelley was also a ferocious intellect and curator; his 1993 exhibition, The Uncanny, with its odd combinations of art and non-art, was resurrected in the most recent Gwangju Biennale, looking every bit as contemporary as its neighbors.
But in conversation Kelley identified with more humble origins: “I was a middle class kid from the Detroit area,” he told me, whose interests lay in consumerist images and topics like class and religion. As he progressed through a wide variety of artistic developments over the years, this fact remained a constant of his work and self-identity.
We at the Walker Art Center are deeply saddened to lose such a unique and uncompromising artist — a true champion of independent thinking — and extend our deep sympathy to his friends, colleagues, and studio staff who feel his loss keenly.