Excursions to the dark side of America
A tribute to Mike Kelley
||If he had to begin his career today, then he’d never have become a visual artist—this is what Mike Kelley is reported to have said only a few days ago, according to his friend and confidante, the gallery dealer Emi Fontana. Fontana told the L.A. Times that Kelley had long considered the art world far too streamlined and commercial. Last Wednesday night, Kelley was found dead in his apartment in South Pasadena. The 57-year-old artist, who was suffering from severe depression, had apparently committed suicide. Kelley was one of the most famous American artists of his generation. His contribution to the Whitney Biennial in New York, which opens at the beginning of March, was already keenly anticipated. News of his death hit many people completely unexpectedly. Yet it was always the bottomless pit of human existence and the dark side of American society that his work addressed: trauma, fear of loss, the exposure of subliminal cultural symbols that dictate our subconscious.
Destroy All Monsters was the name of the "anti-rock" band he formed in the early 1970s as an art student at the University of Michigan. Kelley, who was born in 1954 into a Catholic working class family, took a detour through music before pursuing the fine arts; he loved Iggy Pop and later worked with the band Sonic Youth. In 1976, he moved to Los Angeles with fellow band member Jim Shaw to study at the California Institute of the Arts. Two of his classmates were John Baldessari and the video artist Tony Oursler, with whom he started up another band project. Gradually, Kelley created performances out of the gigs, and the props and stage settings increasingly took on the character of installations and autonomous works of art.
His breakthrough came in the early 1980s with performance installations such as Monkey Island (1982) and Confusion (1983), in which Kelley used banners, posters, drawings, and backdrop elements to create psychologically charged action spaces. His work combined conceptual, philosophical, and art historical thinking with excursions into family memories and the dramas of childhood. Kelley, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection with a series of works on paper, incorporated elements the art establishment tended to view contemptuously, such as autodidactic and outsider art. Among his best-known works is More Love Hours Than Ever Be Repaid (1987), an installation comprised of shag rugs and countless second-hand stuffed animals.
Kelley’s view of the world was anything but rosy: in his famous installation Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), the viewer walks through a gallery with portraits of famous poets, thinkers, and artists only to arrive at a naive image of a clown, which was actually painted by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The results of his collaboration with Paul McCarthy, with whom he realized a series of video works, were similarly brutal: in Heidi (1992), the two transform the famous children’s story into a veritable nightmare. At the same time, however, Kelley’s complex investigation into sexuality, religion, violence, mass culture, and subculture became the quintessence of a rejuvenated American art that drew younger generations of artists to the West Coast.