In Mike Kelley’s Arena #8 (Leopard), the eighth of eleven in a series, a lone stuffed animal—a leopard crafted out of conjoined tubes of leopard-printed fabric—sits on a crocheted afghan. Both objects were found in secondhand stores and bear the marks from their past lives. An imbuement of love was imparted to the afghan when crocheted, perhaps by a grandmother for a grandchild, who tore and stained both afghan and animal through hugging and casual tossing about. Both objects, once snuggled and wrapped around a child as objects of comfort, also bear the marks of being discarded, fondled and soiled by shoppers at garage sales and thrift stores once the child has grown into adulthood. When choosing his objects, Kelley spoke of the task he set out for himself “to deal with something of our time that people can’t see as being of our time, they can only see it as of the past: a child’s worn toy. I wanted to say, ‘no, this thing isn’t of the past, this thing’s here right now.’ It’s not some metaphor for childhood, this is something that an adult made. It was made maybe last week. If you’re seeing it of the past it’s because you’re meant to see it of the past. I’m interested in how that functions…They’re built to be nostalgic” (M. Kelley to J. Miller, “Mike Kelley by John Miller,” Bomb 38, Winter 1992, n.p.).
An artist who has challenged the sanctity of both the art object, childhood and religion (another frequent theme in the artist’s practice), Mike Kelley’s use of the stuffed animal is rich in associations and meaning. For Kelley, the stuffed animal is a “pseudo-child, a cutified sexless being which represents the adult’s perfect model of a child—a neutered pet” (M. Kelley, Mike Kelley: Three Projects: Half a Man, From My Institution to Yours, Pay for Your Pleasure,” Chicago, 1988, p. 9). This neutering is undermined by the position in which Kelley placed the leopard upon the blanket. As curator Amada Cruz identified in the 1991 solo exhibition at the Hirschhorn that included this work, “Some of Kelley’s animals are performers in hilarious sexual follies. In Arena #8 (Leopard), 1990, the spotted cat seems involved in a frustrating erotic activity” (A. Cruz, Mike: Kelley: Half a Man, Washington, D.C. 1991, n.p.).
Speaking of the impulse to project human characteristics onto the stuffed animals, Kelley said, “It’s funny how that piece is interpreted. Because it is stuffed animals, people like to load it with psychological significance. They see the stuffed animals as hiding under the blanket; there’s some psychological crisis going on” (M. Kelley, Bomb 38). Thus, he gave his works titles like “Arena” to describe the area in which his objects interact rather than suggest what the interactions might be about. Curator Jay Sanders considered Kelley in the context of “psychodrama” and “object” theater in his 2013 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Rituals of Rented Island, for the way that works like Arena #8 externalize a subjective experience not easily expressed in words or repressed within one’s consciousness. Sanders wrote, “For other artists of the 1970s, the construction of the self, through family and upbringing, ongoing interpersonal experiences, and the era’s increasingly complex theoretical models of social psychology, offered readymade content to embody and act out. The term ‘psychodrama’...speaks to these performative efforts to use one’s interiority, its sometimes competing impulses and voices, conflicting narratives, and its mirroring of social mechanics. Thus, a fundamental relationship to the external world—real life and what’s readily at hand—inevitably links the two themes of ‘objects and ‘psychology’ in inextricable ways” (J. Sanders, “Love is an Object,” Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980, New York, 2013, p. 33). In this way, Kelley’s installations become ways of engaging with history—both personal, collective and cultural—represented by the material charge of found objects.
The golden color interspersed with black both of the leopard’s fabric and the afghan’s yarn make the stuffed animal blend into the blanket surroundings as if camouflaged. The two objects—found, purchased and collected by Kelley most likely on different trips to thrift shops—reveal the artist’s deliberate pairing based on formal affinities. Kelley described his process of bringing together objects as akin to a painting process for the way it required him to work with areas of color. As Cruz elaborated on the artist’s materials, “By using handsewn and crocheted dolls and blankets, traditionally considered ‘women’s work,’ Kelley borrows a feminist strategy of presenting crafts as art to confront the hierarchies of modernism.” Kelley said of his use of the craft object, “I think [people] see the manufactured object, by virtue of its ‘untouched’ quality, as a perfect object. And as it is the model for the craft object—rather than something that predated it—all craft objects become failures in respect to it. I’m interested in objects that try to play up that schism—between the idealized notion behind the object and the failure of the object to attain that” (M. Kelley and J. Sylvester, ”Talking Failure,” Parkett 31, New York, 1992, p. 100).
That the objects Kelley chose were not just craft objects, but dirty, used craft objects moves them further down the totem pole of artistic value according to the institutions that Kelley was critiquing. “Arena’s imperfect stuffed toys are not dirty because they have dirt on them or appear grimy, but because they have been touched or solicit touching… And while Kelley’s plush assemblages may seem especially grabbable, the sense of touch in those works is not as active as it could otherwise be—they contain pre-grabbed objects, toys in which the defilement is already a fait accompli. His performative works, however, document the tactile act” (V. Camblin, “Soft and Hard: Mike Kelley’s Tactile Return,” Texte Zur Kunst 89, March 2013, n.p.). Even by placing Arena #8 on the floor, like the forgotten playthings left behind by a child who has just exited the room, and not displayed the work on a pedestal indicating its status as art, Kelley reinforces the artist’s abject subject matter at the same time he rescales the traditional art object from one of exaltation to another in which everyday objects and people could participate.