Everything You Need To Know About Mike Kelley Before Seeing His Blowout Retrospective

05/03/2014 11:13 am ET | Updated May 04, 2014

At long last, Mike Kelley's gargantuan retrospective has come to Los Angeles, and in case you haven't yet seen the overwhelming display of fuzzy friends, wonky low-budget films, aggressive drawings and dizzying installations, we'll warn you: it's quite an overwhelming experience. Around 20 new pieces have been added to the exhibition since its stay at MoMA PS1 in New York. And, like so many who journey from the East Coast to the West, the works have room to stretch.

mike kelley art

Sprawled across the massive space of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in Downtown LA, Kelley's works forge a topsy-turvy landscape that resembles an alternate Los Angeles with all your fears and fantasies made flesh. Divided into self-contained pockets, not all too unlike the disparate components of the city, Kelley's exhibition features a nearly endless variety of media, ideas, styles and affects. Viewers go from a bubbling vault of mythical Superman utopias into a rainbow tunnel that leads to the artwork of a local murderer. Reactions fizzle with a visceral heat, the art as tangible inside as your morning's breakfast;; this is not a show you stroll calmly through.

Kelley moved to California from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan in 1976, to study art at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). He lived and worked in LA for over 35 years, his work mirroring in many ways the fractured persona of the city -- a suburban replica of a metropolis, dressed up yet shattered, utterly unapologetic. His artwork branched in infinite directions of style and technique, while often returning to themes of sexuality, shame, childhood, memory, and the monstrous inside.
Throughout his career, Kelley revealed the always lurking proximity of blue collar tastes and the avant-garde, innocence and perversion, the banal and the absurd, the bedroom and the nightmare. Behind every pair of tattered stuffed animals in flagrante delicto, there's an idea hungry for a new mind to infiltrate. When he committed suicide two years ago at 57 years old, Kelley had become one of Los Angeles' most influential and experimental artists. His legacy is everywhere, from the current crop of art school grads to the shiny displays at the 99 Cent Store.

If you're in the LA area, Kelley's retrospective is a must. To relieve you of some of the delicious burden ahead, we've provided a timeline of our favorite Kelley works. Enjoy.

  • 1973: Destroy All Monsters Collective, "Greetings from Detroit", from the installation work, "Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha, 2001
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • Kelley formed experimental noise band "Destroy All Monsters" with Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and Niagara (Lynn Rovner) when they were attending University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He described it as "a pastiche of serious avant-garde music, free jazz, and hard rock, leavened with black humor..." The cut-and-paste improv rock strays from conventional musicality, opting instead for the vibrating textures of an aural collage. "I thought of 'Destroy All Monsters' as an art band," Kelley told Interview. "I was much more invested in Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk or the machinic disco of Giorgio Moroder than I was in the emerging New York punk movement."
  • 1978: Catholic Birdhouse, from Birdhouses series
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • In his final year at CalArts Kelley made a series of birdhouse sculptures transforming crafty, DIY artworks into the holy realm of conceptual art. The houses, including "Catholic Birdhouse" pictured above, incorporate not-very-birdlike conditions into their creation, adding a bizarre element to the traditional handiwork. The works also weave in Kelley's ongoing investigation of family and architectural forms that may or may not be homes. Note: This particular birdhouse is not on view.
  • 1980: The Little Girl's Room
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • In a statement written by Kelley he explained that this project "grew out of a dream within a dream in which a 'little girl' envisioned the face of a pimplike man whose smile revealed an infinity of sharp teeth." After awakening from the dream, the little girl transforms her room from traditionally girly to minimalist and geometric, symbolizing her entrance into puberty. This piece invokes Kelley's interest in adolescence, puberty and the darker moments of childhood. Although Kelley originally intended to create a performance to accompany the installation, he later decided the installation should function alone.
  • 1983: The Banana Man
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • Kelley's 28-minute video project pieced together a character study of the Banana Man, a character from the children's television show "Captain Kangaroo." Having never watched the Banana Man himself, Kelley enlisted his childhood friends to recount their memories of him, memories which were weaved together into a fragmented narrative.
  • 1986: Trickle Down and Swaddling Clothes
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • These works were included in "Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile," which examined issues of light and darkness, representation and simulation through lenses of Western philosophy, American painting and American history. The series contained everything from Rorschach tests to tainted religious symbolism, creating an alternate narrative of the heroic male through spirituality, art and politics. Part of the original installation could only be accessed by crawling through an entrance below a painting of a cave.
  • 1987-93: Half A Man
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • This project takes the form of a complex psychodrama about innocence corrupted, that incorporates questions about gender and the family. "Eviscerated Corpse," a 1989 installation of stuffed animals and rag dolls, sewn together to morph into a human-centipede-esque serpent of cutified commodities. The piece also dismantled the association of dealing with craft objects as "woman's work."
  • 1987: More Love Hours Then Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • This piece, also part of the "Half a Man" project, weaves together used children's toys onto a wall hanging, resembling a nightmarishly cute interpretation of an AbEx canvas. "I said if each one of these toys took 600 hours to make then that’s 600 hours of love; and if I gave this to you, you owe me 600 hours of love; and that’s a lot. And if you can’t pay it back right away it keeps accumulating," Kelley said in an interview with BOMB. "That’s more love that you can ever pay back. So what? You’re just fucked then. I wasn’t even thinking about the objects as objects, I was thinking about them as just hours-of-attention."
  • 1988: Pay for Your Pleasure
    Photo: Brian Forrest, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts
  • "Pay for Your Pleasure" consists of 42 colorful banners depicting poets, politicians and artists, lining the walls of a hallway. Each banner features a quotation comparing artmaking and criminality in some way, such as Francis Picabia's quote "I love the unfrocked priest, the freed convict;; they are without past and without future and so live in the present." At the end of the hall you'll find an artwork made by a local violent criminal and at the entrance, a donation box for a victim's rights group. "The gooey notion that art should somehow be good for you -- Vitamin C for the soul -- is very American, and it's a sentiment Kelley skewers with Catholic wit," Christopher Knight wrote in the LA Times.
  • 1991-99: Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites
    Photo credit: Nic Tenwiggenhorn, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • These fuzzy planets have become some of Kelley's most iconic pieces, the discarded toys clustered and sanitized to the ranks of serious sculptures. "'With Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites' Mike Kelley had created a quintessentially American environment," Bettina Gilois explained, "and explored the American dream expressed through the excess of consumption, bulk buying, and the habit of collecting by a prosperous society that believed its own myth;; a society obsessed with luxury and life-style, lavishly garish color coordination and the most transient objects of low quality, which ironically stand for quality of life. All of it scented and deodorized like the constant cleansing of a bad conscience." Note: This work is not on view at MOCA.
  • 1987/2003 : From My Institution to Yours
    Photo courtesy of MOCA, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • This piece, which was originally shown in LACMA, features stock animation character drawings found floating around CalArts accompanied by slogans posted around the school (which was also his workplace.) The materials were gathered from sites of menial labor, exploring the space that often exists between museum-goers and workers.
  • 1989: With Malice Towards None; With Charity For All, from Reconstructed History
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • This series consists of photographs and collages created by defacing illustrations from second-hand American History textbooks that Kelley found. The doodles and impromptu captions are reminiscent of adolescent yearbook scribbles or graffiti. John Waters described it as "a real history text book that Mike defaced with glee, the same thing all of us who were bored in high school wanted to do in reaction to teachers who didn’t challenge us or discouraged our rabid interests. Our boredom turned to anger and then to rage and if we were lucky, then to art. 'Barf' adds Mike to the patriotic 'Signing of the Declaration of Independence' illustration and now, on the 4th of July, I can finally feel patriotic thanks to Mike Kelley’s troublemaking defiant reinvention of this school book."
  • 1990: Nostalgic Depiction of the Innocence of Childhood
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • This photo (which serves as one half of a diptych), features a man and woman ( the LA based artists Bob Flannagan and Sheree Rose) squatting naked over stuffed animals, the man's butt smeared with dark liquid. The fake pornography references and satirizes the understanding that children's imaginations are more vivid than adults', extending this advantage to encompass sexual fantasies. The sepia tone of the photograph adds to the ambiguity of what exactly is going on and what exactly is smeared all over that buttocks.
  • 1991: Ahh...Youth!
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • Eight frontal photos rest side by side, most capturing the faces of thrift-store stuffed animals, with one depicting Kelley himself. Standing out against the fuzzy majority, Kelley appears menacing if not completely sociopathic, like an unwelcome stranger peeking into a child's bedroom. The arresting image also served as the cover of Sonic Youth's "Dirty."
  • 1993: Roth/Mouse/Wolverton Drawing Exercise #8
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • Here Kelley toys with the powers of attraction and repulsion, using monstrous features, warped distortions and grotesque details to create surprisingly appealing images. "My personal interest in the monstrous is more sexual in orientation," Kelley explained. "I have always been, primarily, interested in abstract monsters-the blob monster. When I thought about it, I realized this stemmed from my childhood, when I didn't know what female genitals looked like. I thought the blob monsters in films and comic books were what genitals must look like, so such monsters were very sexual to me. They were not purely repellent-they were mystifying and alluring."
  • 1995: Educational Complex
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • The architectural piece above contains small models of every school Kelley ever attended and his childhood home, with the spaces he could not remember left as blank. He facetiously claimed these spots were forgotten because he'd been abused there and had blocked out the memory as a response to the trauma. Kelley was intrigued by Repressed Memory Syndrome, a psychological theory that aligns child abuse with dysfunctional behavior. "What was my problem? Why was I playing with these toys? Had I been abused?" Kelley explained of his artistic motivation. "Was I a pedophile? I didn't understand what they were talking about. But when I did a bit of research, I discovered how culturally omnipresent this infatuation with child abuse was. Since everybody seemed to be so interested in my personal biography, I thought I should make some overtly biographical work-pseudo-biographical work."
  • 1996: Untitled #3 from Land O'Lakes series
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • The muse for this series was the woman on the "Land O'Lakes" butter packaging, originally made by Arthur Hanson in 1928. Growing up, Kelley would squeeze his butter carton in a way that made her knees appear to be her breasts. "She was the object of my childhood sexual fantasies," Kelley explained. A series of drawings and paintings contort the girl in various ways, inverting, multiplying, sexualizing and making psychedelic the iconic American image.
  • 1999: Framed and Frame (Miniature Reproduction "Chinatown Wishing Well" Built by Mike Kelley after "Miniature Reproduction 'Seven Star Cavern' Built by Prof. H. K. Lu"
    Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • Kelley created a life-sized reconstruction of a wishing well in LA's Chinatown, toying with the space between real and imagined spaces. The realistic sculpture is complete with Chinese figurines and coins from imaginary well-wishers. The installation also contains an NSFW portion. A reminder from Carolina Miranda: "Don’t forget to take a peek under and inside many of his pieces, since they often seem to contain little surprises. Under the architectural models, you’ll find a mattress; a pink dresser hides books about sex and a packet of birth control pills; and inside the 'Wishing Well' is a mattress, a box of Kleenex, some candles and tub of Vaseline. (This latter space he once described as a 'crawl space/fuck room.')" Note: This is a two part piece. Only half of the work is pictured.
  • 1999-2001: Kandors
    Getty Images
  • Kelley takes Kandor, the capital of Superman's fictional origin planet Krypton, which, in the comics, was shrunken by the villainous Brainiac and stored in Superman's hyperbaric chamber. Kelley's three-dimensional sculptures encompass various Kandors described throughout the Superman comic's history. "When I researched it, I discovered that Kandor had never been drawn the same way twice in the Superman comics," Kelley explained. "It was such an unimportant part of the Superman mythos that a fixed city plan was never developed." Kelley originally intended to create Kandor-Con 2000, a convention for Superman fanatics devoted to this mythical utopia. But the piece, about more than just comic books, speaks to alienation, imagination and the home. "Kandor now sits, frozen in time, a perpetual reminder of his inability to escape that past, and his alienated relationship to his present world."
  • 2000-2011: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34 (The King and Us/The Queens and Me), 2010
    Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • "Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions" was originally conceived as a 365-part video project, one for each day of the year,meant to cycle completely in a 24-hour event. He completed 36 of the videos, all based off found photographs of “extracurricular activities” and combined them with sculptural elements. The first is a one-act melodrama that restages a high school yearbook photograph of a play, and numbers 2-32 also known as Day Is Done, are a lo-fi series of video-sculptures featuring vampires, hillbillies, goths and other characters. A particularly trippy moment of the series,( seen above), features a life-sized Colonel Sanders peering into a diorama featuring a mini Freud puffing on a cigar. Identical swirling colors adorn the miniature floor and the large-scale one.
  • 2005-2013: Mobile Homestead
    Photo credit: Corine Vermuelen, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
  • This installation is a full size reproduction of the home Kelley grew up in, located in Westland, Michigan just west of Detroit. The front of the house is removable and designed like a mobile home so that it may be driven in and around the environs of Detroit doing "public" service.. The remainder of the house rests on a lot by the MOCAD and is used for community projects and exhibitions, such as "haircuts, social services, meeting space and a place to hold barbecues and perhaps for the homeless to pick up mail." Kelley also documented the people and places he encountered during a 2010 journey of the Mobile Homestead in a three part video work, which showed at the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Mike Kelley's retrospective runs until July 28, 2014 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles.

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