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Mike Kelley dies at 57; L.A. contemporary artist

Mike Kelley's psychologically complex work was instrumental in making L.A. an international capital of contemporary art.

February 02, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Kelley is shown in his studio with a work in progress in 1989.
Mike Kelley is shown in his studio with a work in progress in 1989. (Los Angeles Times )

Mike Kelley, an influential Los Angeles artist whose physically messy and psychologically complex projects laid the groundwork for present-day installation art, has died. He was 57.

He was found dead Tuesday evening at his home in South Pasadena in what several friends described as a suicide following a serious depression. "We can't confirm a suicide pending an autopsy or coroner's report," said one of the estate's trustees, art historian John Welchman.

Paul Schimmel, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, called Kelley a "great advocate for artists as well as a great artist," noting his role teaching at the Art Center College of Design.

PHOTOS: Mike Kelley | 1954-2012

"L.A. would not have become a great international capital of contemporary art without Mike Kelley," Schimmel said. "Of all the artists in the 1980s, he was the one who really broke out and established a new and complex identity for his generation."

Kelley's death came as a surprise to many, but his fans have long recognized the demons that fueled his work, known for its dark humor and punk irreverence. While he rejected the label of bad-boy artist, some of his most famous works are raw or raunchy in their imagery.

Writing in Slate in 2005, novelist Jim Lewis said: "I think I could walk into any collection in the world and spot the Mike Kelley piece immediately (and this despite his many imitators), which is more than I could do with, say, Brice Marden. You can tell the Kelley work because it's the stuff that itches, the stuff that reeks, the stuff that looks like it needs a good bath."

Or, as Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote in 1994, "Kelley is an avatar of the power and humanity inherent in recognizing the radical impurity of human experience. His art searches out dark and soiled places where defects, fault lines and inadequacies are obvious and routine, and where failure takes on the poignant, fragile, even heartbreaking beauty that accompanies any loss of self."

His work spanned multiple mediums over the years, including drawing, painting, sculpture, performance and video. And one of his contributions was pushing the boundaries of installation art to pack subversive themes and unruly mediums into a single space, however uncomfortable for museum and gallery goers.

Kelley was born in Detroit on Oct. 27, 1954, to what he described as a working-class Catholic family. His father was in charge of maintenance for a public school system, and his mother was a cook in the executive dining room at Ford Motor Co.

He attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he founded the "anti-rock" band Destroy All Monsters with Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and Lynn Rovner. He and Shaw both moved west in 1976 to attend graduate school at California Institute of the Arts. There Kelley studied with artists such as John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler and teamed up with fellow student Tony Oursler for another art band called The Poetics.

"Mike played the drums and I sang and we both played organ — we both bonded on that probably because of our Catholic upbringing. Though to say 'played' is an exaggeration; we made noises," said Oursler, now best known for his video art.

Besides playing music, Kelley's main pursuit in school and soon after was performance art. After graduating from CalArts, he began what Welchman describes as "an astonishing series of performances using soliloquies and highly charged poetic prose. They appear to be improvisational but were in fact highly scripted, even the yells and screams."

But more and more, the props or sound instruments from his performances were becoming sculptural objects themselves, and Kelley found himself working in the loose genre known as installation art. His stage fright ultimately led to his use of video as a way of capturing private performances and not having to perform before a large audience himself.

One of his breakthrough works was called "Monkey Island," a performance/installation staged in Metro Pictures in 1982 and Rosamund Felsen Gallery in 1983. Its point of departure was a visit Kelley made to the monkey enclosure at the L.A. Zoo, and drawings of monkeys did figure into the work. But so did inflatable bladders and other symbolic objects.

In the 1980s he became known for working with another type of material: crocheted blankets, fabric dolls and other rag toys found at thrift stores and yard sales. Perhaps the most famous work in this vein, "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid" from 1987, featured a mess of used rag dolls, animals and blankets strewn across a canvas, a way of investing a fictional childhood scene with some visceral pathos.

"If Monkey Island was his breakthrough piece in terms of the art world in Los Angeles, it was the stuffed animals that became his sort of signature work about remembrance, loss, a certain kind of sadness," Schimmel said.

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