Mike Kelley achieved his critical success by eschewing the terms of greatness, revealing instead in the abject, the discarded and the homespun to rescale the hierarchies of modern art. Kelley was a miner of his own psyche enacting Freud’s theories of repression in the detritus of the American middle class. The first in a series of works, Memory Ware Flat 1 is an accumulation of materials and themes important to the artist’s oeuvre. It is a painting that critiques painting as it is positioned above contributions from the craft realm in the artist’s signature mix of low and high art. It is also a collection of objects “consciously collected and unconsciously accumulated,” and a study in sentimentality and nostalgia embodied in objects as they intersect with memory. (M. Kelley, The Harems, London, 2004, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/mike-kelley-uncanny/mike-kelley-uncanny-room-guide-harems, [accessed April 1, 2016]).
“Memory ware” refers to a folk practice in Canada, where an assortment of objects—jugs, boxes, vases, picture frames, ashtrays and other keepsakes—are decoupaged in memorabilia, tchotchkes and trinkets of sentimental and decorative value including the buttons, single earrings, broken jewelry, badges and pins, brooches, coins, shells, beads, pearls, tiled made from broken tea cups and other charms. Kelley chose a particularly painterly way to present his memory ware: arranged flat on a panel and framed. Indeed, Kelley’s memory wares are both paintings and a critique of painting. Kelley’s use of a folk craft technique traditionally associated with women, children and the domestic sphere can be thought of as a feminine, crafted and kitsch response aimed at subverting the painted ejaculations of the Abstract Expressionists. Both a fan and a critic of all-over painting, Kelley spoke of how he “liked the goopy, slightly disgusting surfaces of Abstract Expressionism and I thought such surfaces could be used to great advantage in combination with various kinds of more loaded images, images that didn’t lend themselves so easily to abstract equivalency” (Quoted in José Lebrero Stals, (ed.), Mike Kelley 1986-1996, Barcelona, 1997).
These glittering polychrome objects also share characteristics with mosaics. Made from the bits and pieces accumulate over a lifetime, Memory Ware revives those objects that are too chipped, broken or dated to keep, but too precious to throw away, with new life. But instead of precious keepsakes, Kelley upsets expectations of sentimentality because the objects presented were collected, not as keepsakes, but as artist’s materials. “These materials are often keepsakes,” Kelley explains, “things that are understood as instigators of fond memories. The works in this exhibition do not have a similar sentimental intent; rather, my interests lie more in the themes of re-examination and re-fuse than in nostalgia. I playfully give new ‘life’ to unused studio materials and discarded formal and thematic considerations in a manner similar to memory ware’s revitalization of cast-off objects” (M. Kelley, “Memory Ware,” Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, Proposals, London and Cambridge, Mass., 2001, p. 152).
Where some works in the series are are arranged by formal aspects and pictorial potential—all buttons, all brown objects or all toys for example—Memory Ware Flat 1 is a rare “wild style” in a kaleidoscopic of manufactured colors. In addition to the regular menu of wares, the first in the series flaunts small toys like the ones found in Cracker-Jack boxes and gumball machines, beer bottle caps, marbles from the artist’s childhood and pins of revered music groups from his engagement with the punk music scene since he played with the band Destroy All Monsters in the early 1970s, Memory Ware Flat #1 is a special survey because of they way it pulls together the artist’s influences, often-used materials, objects from his daily life and personal memorabilia.
The work is also representative of a collecting impulse at the core of Kelley’s production. The artist’s collection of handcrafted toys, blankets and other childhood ephemera culled from thrift stores and garage sales drove his work from the mid-1980s through his death in 2013. This first Memory Ware Flat was made in the year immediately after Categorical Imperative, 1999, and Morgue, 1999, for which the artist assembled twenty years worth of unused material collected for projects and designed a system to catalogue them. Where the former organized the three-dimensional objects in Kelley’s store of materials, the latter arranged the two-dimensional objects. According to Kelley, “These two projects were a way to ‘clean house’ in a sense, not only literally but mentally as well. I was interested in why I had saved all of this stuff (in some cases these are things I have kept for over twenty years) and in why these things had never been ‘right’ for aesthetic usage. I thought this exercise would force me to confront some of my artistic preconceptions.” Memory Ware Flat 1, presents the accumulation of objects in between these two categories, with an assortment of objects that are all rendered the flat along the same plane when in suspended in grout and homemade paper pulp.
For The Harems, Kelley organized all his various collections, from the marbles and comic books of his youth to the shot glasses and spoons collected as a joke to make fun of the objects often collected by American travelers, into sixteen groups according to degrees of importance and sentimentality in his life. Part of the artist’s Uncanny retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2004, Kelley wrote of “the uncontrollable impulse to collect and [impose] order is itself, uncanny; the strange sense of loss and wonder attendant to the gaps in collections is uncanny. At the same time, most of this stuff is utterly mundane—the everyday crap that fills the house. It could be tossed out tomorrow and it wouldn’t make any difference to me at all” (M. Kelley, ibid.).