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Mike Kelley

American Sculptor, Conceptual, Performance, and Video Artist

Mike Kelley Photo

Born: 27 October 1954 - Wayne, Michigan

Died: 31 January 2012 - South Pasadena, California

"Art saved my life. Art was the place that made me want to educate myself. When I became an artist, it was where the most interesting thinkers were."

Summary of Mike Kelley

Mike Kelley took a scalpel to late-20th-century American popular culture, estranging the familiar and exposing society's dark underbelly in works that were as wide-ranging in their subject matter as they were inventive in choice and combination of media. From the beginning, Kelley's anarchic performances and videos resonated with the emergent DIY ethos of the late 1970s and early 1980s punk subculture, first in his native Michigan, and then in Los Angeles. From there, his heterogeneous practice struck a chord with the climate of postmodern theory during the 1980s and 1990s. Kelley's musical activities and his collaborative work with acts such as Sonic Youth were also a key link between the art and rock worlds during those decades. And as his work became more and more complex and ambitious, Kelley did much to open up the potential of Installation art to absorb new media, and to captivate and overwhelm the viewer in immersive and often chaotic ensembles of disparate objects. Upon his suicide in 2012 at the age of 57, Kelley bequeathed to a younger generation of film, video, performance, and installation artists, a legacy of visual and sonic assaults upon the viewer's moral certainties, aesthetic sensibilities, and the decorum of the gallery environment.

Key Ideas

Kelley incorporated found objects - most famously, soft toys - into many of his works. Often sourced from thrift stores, these objects added a distinctive chapter to the history of the readymade in contemporary art, whose origins lie in the practices of Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. Signifying failure, waste, and regret as well as connoting symbolic and actual violence, Kelley's use of the found object became a key component of the trend towards abject themes in contemporary art of the late 1980s and 1990s.
Gathering diverse found materials from a wide variety of sources, Kelley acted as a pop ethnographer of kitsch Americana, low-brow culture and the rituals and rites of passage of everyday suburban and small-town life. Incorporating all of these themes into his work, Kelley helped to forge the notion, now widespread, of the contemporary artist as akin to an amateur cultural anthropologist.
With careful planning and editing, Kelley often assembled works of different media into installations of various constituent parts. In doing so, he helped to debunk the traditional expectation that the artist must be a 'master' of a particular medium. Instead, the unifying factor in many of Kelley's heterogeneous installations and sculptural assemblages became above all conceptual rather than formal.
Kelley was a prolific collaborator, and as both a teacher and an artist, he fostered an ethos of generosity and creative exchange that would exert an influence upon a younger generation of 'relational' artists that emerged in the 1990s.
Mike Kelley Photo

Born in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan in 1954, Mike Kelley grew up in a working class family as the youngest of four children. Ten years separated Kelley from his older siblings and, as a result, he spent much of his childhood alone, reading in his room. His father, a maintenance worker for the public school system, was not very involved in his children's lives. By contrast, his mother, a cook at Ford Motor Company's cafeteria, was, in Kelley's words, "a complete control freak." Growing up, he had a tumultuous relationship with his parents. In high school, he once wore a thrift-store dress to school just to upset them. His parents were devout Catholics, but by the time Kelley was in first grade, he remembers thinking that religion "was a load of shit."

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