"The starting point for much of Mike Kelley’s works are historical facts, religious beliefs, cultural phenomena, and psychological dynamics. From the stockpile of collective experience, he digs out a few nuggets which are often the banal conveyors of the traces of those large systems of belief. Kelley transforms ideas into objects, as would a Conceptual artist… Because of his underlying skepticism about the “truth” of any of the systems with which he begins, he riffs, invents, and elaborates, giving free reign to invention." (Elizabeth Sussman, in José Lebrero Stals, (ed.), Mike Kelley 1986-1996, Barcelona, 1997, p. 26).
Perhaps no American contemporary artist has dared to plunge so deeply into the demented darkness at the heart of humanity as Mike Kelley. Over the course of more than three decades, Kelley produced a tremendous body of work across many media, including music, sculpture, performance, drawing, painting, video and photography. With a probing eye and a cutting wit, Kelley studied immensely complex human systems such as empathy, identity, faith and control, all the while subverting conventional notions of sexuality, power, popular culture and art-making itself.
The present lots belong to three distinct series of works from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, demonstrating the bewildering diversity of Kelley’s oeuvre.
Rendered in stark black and white and resembling a panel from an absurd comic book, Neoprimitive, 1983, depicts a stereotypical New York businessman literally gone wild–stomping and wailing in his underpants, dress shoes and high black socks, bedecked in a plumed headdress and double necklaces, beating a garbage can with twin bones for drumsticks. This painting on paper was executed concurrently with Kelley’s project Monkey Island, a sprawling “disquisition on order, organization, and corporeal and epistemological entropy,” all stemming from a series of photographs Kelley made at the “monkey island” of the Los Angeles Zoo (E. Meyer-Hermann and L. Gabrielle Mark, eds., Mike Kelley, Munich, 2013). Neoprimitive lampoons corporate America’s veneer of civility and sophistication in Kelley’s characteristically caustic style. As in his best work, the painting reveals the tensions between the ideal, heroic thought of the super-ego and subliminal desires of the id present in American popular culture.
Memory Ware Flat #37, 2003, derives its byzantine kitsch aesthetic from Canadian Folk Art, in which common household objects like bottles, jugs, vases, picture frames, ashtrays and other domestic bric-à-brac are covered with sentimental trinkets, including jewelry, buttons and beads. Kelley discovered memory ware bottles while browsing at a Toronto antiques fair in 2000. The genre proved a natural source of inspiration, dovetailing with Kelley’s proclivity for incorporating the overlooked, unseen or disguised objects of everyday life in his art. He explains: “The materials used to decorate objects in the memory ware tradition are often keepsakes, things saved for sentimental reasons that prompt fond memories. My works are not loaded with similar sentiments, of course, as I am more interested in the themes of reexamination and reuse than in the production of nostalgia. The paintings... are constructed out of similar decorative materials, but they are employed in different ways. Some paintings are completely covered with similarly sized buttons that, because of their uniformity, produce an intense optical effect when arranged in a field. Others are made up of a wider variety of decorative materials in a more garish ‘wild style’ approach, while still others are composed of strings of brightly colored beads and have swirling psychedelic surfaces. All of the paintings, however, share a non-compositional, ‘overall’ approach” (M. Kelley, quoted in “Memory Ware” in J. C. Welchman, ed., Mike Kelley: Minor Histories–Statements, Conversations, Proposals, Cambridge, 2004, p. 153).
In Kelley’s Arena #8 (Leopard), 1990, the eighth of eleven in a series, a lone stuffed animal—a leopard crudely crafted out of conjoined tubes of spotted fabric—lays awkwardly on a crocheted afghan. Both objects were found in secondhand stores and plainly show the wear of their past lives. In Kelley’s hands, this dinginess is transformed into a forlorn aura of spent tenderness. One can imagine the afghan being lovingly crocheted by a grandmother for her grandchild, before it was torn and stained. The leopard appears crippled from an excess of hugging and snuggling. Both objects, once wrapped around an unknown child as objects of comfort, also bear the marks of being discarded, fondled and soiled by careless shoppers at garage sales and thrift stores. When choosing his objects, Kelley spoke of the task he set out for himself as “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.).
Kelley, as a young artist, was attracted to the belief that Abstract Expressionist painters could tap into the unconscious mind by means of the art-making process. His work is an exploration and refinement of this premise by less conventional means. Kelley seeks to enlighten our awareness of the truths that ground us as humans, but as a society we tend to deny, sublimated from the ideal and pure thought that also makes us human and which we openly celebrate. Though these subliminal signifiers manifest themselves by apparently veiled means, as in the exploration of cultural taboos, they are actually obvious and openly revealed through Kelley's critical eye.