“At first, I didn't realize that the stuffed animals had a monstrous quality. It took me a while to see it… I started hoarding them; I had never really looked at dolls or stuffed animals closely before. I became interested in their style-the proportions of them, their features. That's when I realized that they were monstrosities.”
- Mike Kelley, quoted in G. O’Brien, “Mike Kelley,” Interview, November 2008.
Spanning dizzyingly across almost four decades, the scope of Mike Kelley’s influence is so vast that it continues to resonate among artists of his generation and young artists of today. Throughout his career, he produced a sensational body of work that is celebrated for its audacity, fearlessness and surprising beauty. Working in every form and medium–from drawing, painting and sculpture to performance, video, photography and even music–Kelley’s output is defined by an acute examination, deconstruction and critique of normative society, as well as cultural taboo. His relentless and unflinching approach to art-making serves as a reminder of the power and sheer necessity of self-expression in our ever-changing world.
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1954, Kelley attended the University of Michigan in the early 70s before relocating to Los Angeles in 1976, where he received his master’s degree at CalArts, a school deeply rooted in the teachings of Conceptual art. At this time, Kelley’s work was dedicated mostly to what he termed “demonstrated” objects, or performative sculptures. In the form of drums, megaphones and cardboard musical instruments, these pieces required audience participation in order for them to be activated as art objects. This concept of “activation” and audience participation would come to influence Kelley’s performances, a practice that would span the greater part of his career; it would also become a fundamental tenet to his stuffed animal works of the late 80s and 90s, of which the present lot is an example.
Begun in 1987, Kelley’s Half a Man project comprises distinct groupings of works that address “in one way or another,” Kelley noted, “issues of gender-specific imagery and the family” (M. Kelley, Minor Histories, New York, 2004, p. 14). Each series of works utilizes psychologically charged found objects to illustrate a narrative of innocence lost. One of the earliest examples of the stuffed animal works, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987) demonstrates in its title a foundational concept for the series as a whole: the stuffed animals in these works function as forgotten vessels of love and affection, or symbols of familial obligation and emotional debt. In the same way that Kelley’s performative sculptures are activated by viewer participation, the stuffed animals have been previously activated by the anonymous children who once cherished them, imbuing the toys with a lingering and haunting trace of tenderness. The warmth of the connections they once maintained with their owners is implicated and subverted in the emotional psychodrama of Kelley’s art.
Hanging ominously by a rope attached to the ceiling, Tiger and Saddle Shoe is made up of two clusters of color-coordinated stuffed animals. A condensed black-and-white orb of pandas and penguins contrasts starkly with a yellow globe of tigers, their tails dangling aimlessly in space. Exhibited at the Jablonka Galerie, Cologne, in 1991, the present lot is a precursor to Kelley’s landmark 1999 installation, Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites. The exhibit presented different arrays of similarly color-coded stuffed animal accumulations as deranged celestial bodies in a solar system of abandonment. At once intellectually rigorous and aesthetically intriguing, Tiger and Saddle Shoe is a striking example of Kelley’s expansive wit and darkling genius.