Ahh...Youth innovatively and unsettlingly assembles used stuffed toys, arranged side by side in a progression of color photographs. In seven out of eight panels, Kelley casts care-worn playthings in portraits, smiling inanimately from the photograph invoking childhood's lighthearted playtime. In the fifth of the eight panels, Kelley interpolates a yearbook photograph of himself, with the artist looking less the art world celebrity and more the disgruntled grungy adolescent. Kelley's collection of images provocatively reassesses the childhood keepsake and radically reinterprets the "appropriation" art that so dominated the 1980s. While Kelley instills a sense of humor in the forlorn objects he retrieved from nearby thrift shops, their alienation in each frame renders them strange, even perverse. Juxtaposed with Kelley's immobile, frigid gaze, they become associated with adulthood's disaffections, ciphers for our suppressed desires. In this respect, Ahh...Youth deftly subverts the kitsch, naive objects and glossy surfaces that Jeff Koons celebrated in his Celebration series.
However, Ahh...Youth does not articulate longing for youth's halcyon days. As the artist once elaborated, his work describes "a kind of black nostalgia, and by that I mean something akin to black humor. I am not 'going back' to reclaim some longed for positive experience from my youth, but to reexamine, from an adult point of view, some aesthetic experience that I feel I was unable to understand at that time ... I suppose you could say that I derive some kind of pleasure from this looking back, which could be associated with nostalgia. But I would have to say that I believe this pleasure results more from my enjoyment of the playful, formal, and perverse games of reconstructing and inventing the past than it does from some joyful recovery of lost experience" (M. Kelley, quoted in "Black Nostalgia. An Interview with Mike Kelley by Daniel Kothenschulte," in D. Kothenschulte (ed.), Mike Kelley, Peter Fischli, David Weiss, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2000, p.30).
In this respect, Kelley does not idealize the past but reconsiders the potentially traumatic and dark euphemisms embodied in the objects surrounding childhood. Clinical psychology views the treasured stuffed toy or cherished doll as a transitional object between the infant's hand-in-mouth activity and sentimental attachment. As psychologist D. W. Winicott has highlighted, for the young child the transitional object becomes the conduit for "intense experiencing" that belongs to "play," "artistic creation," "religious feeling" and "dreaming." At the same time, however, "a regressive actualization of the object may result in adult 'fetishism' and 'criminality' - 'lying and stealing'" (D. W. Winnicott, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," 1951, quoted in J. C. Welchman, "The Mike Kelleys," in Mike Kelley, London, 1999, p. 71). This transformation fascinates Kelley, along with the subliminal sexual connotations of those everyday objects of innocence. Published as the cover image and fold out for the Sonic Youth album entitled Dirty, Ahh...Youth meditates on what we can still redeem from childhood, untainted by the cynical, sordid experiences of adulthood.