With its mesmerizing, mosaic-like array of countless accumulated objects, Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flat #16 is a brilliant iteration of the highly-coveted series by the same name. Executed in 2001, the work belongs to the first group of Memory Ware Flats that Kelley began in 2000 and covered in hundreds of small embedded objects, the piece shimmers and sparkles. Its endless assortment of objects makes for a pixelated appearance when viewed from a distance, which snaps into focus upon closer inspection. The embedded tchotchkes are those one might find in a child’s collection. Castoffs like forgotten buttons, shiny pennies and cheap plastic jewelry pepper its surface. Each object points to a previous life, be it a vintage button from a beloved sweater or a hotel key from a secret tryst. Whatever their source, Kelley’s work affords equal opportunity to each and every object, creating a dazzling cacophony of strange and unknowable items, each one hinting at forgotten pleasures and latent desires that lie hidden within its teeming surface.
The Memory Ware Flats are based on 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 seemed a natural source of inspiration, since Kelley’s anti-art sensibility favors the low-brow, often incorporating overlooked, unseen or disguised objects of everyday life, like the tattered stuffed animals for which he is known. 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 noncompositional, ‘overall’ approach...” (M. Kelley, quoted in “Memory Ware” in J. C. Welchman, (ed.), Mike Kelley: Minor Histories--Statements, Conversations, Proposals, Cambridge, 2004, p. 153).
Indeed, the Memory Ware Flats merge the two-dimensional aesthetics of painting with the decorative, junk-assemblage of Canadian folk art, resulting in spectacular hybrids that straddle both realms. In Memory Ware Flat #16, Kelley weaves together the “allover” paintings of Jackson Pollock, the art brut style of Dubuffet and the readymades of Duchamp, creating an utterly new style of painting. Its glittering, sparkly surface is like pointillism passed through a flea market prism.
In Memory Ware Flat #16, a cacophonous riot of tiny objects are embedded in the painting’s surface, as if preserved in amber like hundreds of swarming insects. Beads, pennies, buttons, lapel-pins, plastic toys, keys, cheap, colorful necklaces and bracelets work in tandem to create a dizzying surface, each suspended in the tile grout and homemade paper pulp that Kelley employs. This is twenty-first century detritus, the stuff of couch cushions and gumball machines, the landfill junk that a future civilization might unearth in hope of understanding the culture that created it. A small pink heart, a purple comb, several child-size barrettes and multiple gold bracelets and necklaces find their way into the work, along with countless vintage buttons, plastic pearls and beads. These objects reference girlhood, and the trappings of femininity already encoded within them, which Kelley is quick to put under the microscope for the viewer. Several small items, like a pink plastic barrette, an ID-bracelet and flower-shaped beads speak to little girls’ notion of beauty, making this painting—number sixteen in the series0—allude to “sweet sixteen” and the passage from girlhood into adult life.
Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats share similarities with other outsider art genres that were popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that made use of forgotten or discarded materials, like sailor’s valentines, scrimshaw or tramp art. The ingenuity of the often-anonymous maker in each of these genres is remarkable, especially their ability to reuse common household detritus or whatever lay on hand, which is similar to Kelley’s practice. Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats differ from their predecessors in their lack of narrative or recognizable design, however. Prioritizing nothing and everything all at once, the Memory Ware Flats favor a radical, allover composition that’s much like the visual equivalent to Kelley’s “noise-rock” band “Destroy All Monsters” of the 70s and 80s. It evokes the “wild style” that Kelley often referenced. A subversive non-painting “painting,” it critiques the historical model of modern art by integrating techniques from “low art” genres like Folk art and traditional craft. Kelley himself explained. ”In art school I was trained in the modernist tradition, yet I felt compelled to return again and again to materials associated with my lower-middle-class upbringing, to re-examine those materials from a critical vantage point. … I was using these traditional materials in an intentionally perverse way--misusing them to reveal their conventionality” (M. Kelley, quoted in “On Folk Art” in J. C. Welchman, ed., Ibid., Cambridge, 2004, p. 147).
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Kelley’s Memory Ware Flat #16 resides in the power of each tiny object to elicit powerful emotional response in the viewer. Indeed, throughout his career, Kelley has invoked the strange associative force that cast-off objects undoubtedly convey, particularly in the stuffed animals, yarn dolls and other hand-crafted items that remain among his most touching work. In Memory Ware Flat #16, Kelley fills a brimming canvas with hundreds of meaningful well-loved objects. The tiny items are repositories of latent memories, each one like a charged amulet or good-luck charm that Kelley brings to light after years of neglect. Perhaps because of this, the painting contains infinite meanings, as each depends upon the viewer’s own experience to decipher its many hidden mysteries and powerful allusions.