Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley (b. Detroit, 1954, d. Los Angeles, 2012) is widely considered one of the most influential artists of our time. Irreverent but deeply informed, topical yet visionary, Kelley worked in a startling array of genres and styles, including performance, installation, drawing, painting, video, photography, sound works, text, and sculpture. He also worked on curatorial projects; collaborated with many other artists and musicians; and left a formidable body of critical and creative writing. Starting out in the late 1970s with solo performances, image/text paintings, and gallery and site-specific installations, Kelley came to prominence in the 1980s with a series of sculptures composed of common craft materials. Featuring repurposed thrift store toys, blankets, and worn stuffed animals, the Half a Man series focused Kelley’s career-long investigation of memory, trauma, and repression, predicated on what the artist described as a “shared culture of abuse.”

Throughout his career Kelley sought to understand the cultures around him from the bottom up, scouring yard sales and yearbooks for their cast-offs and leftovers. He mined popular culture and both modernist and alternative traditions, which he set in relation to relentless self- and social examinations, by turns dark and delirious. With an inimitable mix of caustic skepticism and temporizing respect, he engaged the languages and assumptions of education, adolescence, crafts and DIY, holidays, pop psychology, parades and rituals, fandom, newspaper reportage, and modes of public address—producing a uniquely sustained address to the conditions and implications of the American vernacular.

In more recent years, Kelley’s ambitions widened in conceptual scope and physical scale with Educational Complex (1995), the epic Day Is Done (2005), his Kandors series (2007-2012), and the posthumously completed public work Mobile Homestead (2006-2013), as he addressed architecture, institutions, and “projective reconstruction” using the theory of repressed memory syndrome coupled with (pseudo-) biographic inquiry into his own aesthetic and various social formations.