Amid the warm, feel-good, nostalgia bath engendered by Pacific Standard Time in Southern California the last few months, the untimely death of Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley at age 57, reportedly of suicide, bestowed a sad and bracing wake-up call. Not that Kelley’s doubts and demons weren’t evident–indeed, they fueled his work and gave it its stark, visceral oomph. His subversive critique was not just aimed outward toward society at large, but seemingly inward at himself (filtered through his Catholic upbringing, one imagines), and extended to include the very system of cultural commerce in which he operated. Although he evinced an outsider’s stance, his presence in multiple Whitney Biennials (this year would be his eighth) and his representation by the world-straddling Gagosian Gallery testified to his insider creds. While his work projected a punky, Iggy Pop insouciance
(like Iggy, whom he admired, Kelley came out of working class Detroit), it also exuded the abject reverence of a headstrong child who defiantly brings a small dead animal to place before a cathedral altar.
I never met Kelley, and to be frank, I found his blend of bad boy raunch, refracted pathos, and willful obscurity to be at times offputting. As was no doubt his intent. In the LA Times obituary, MOCA curator Paul Schimmel said simply that LA would not have become an art capital without Kelley, adding that “of all the artists in the 1980s, he was the one who really broke out and established a new and complex identity for his generation.” (It’s not for nothing that the organizers of PST drew the end of that supposedly overlooked era at 1980.) Of his best-known work, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid from 1987–the aggregate of woebegone knit animal toys and blankets which was shown at the Whitney Biennial, beside a fetishistic phallic candle display called The Wages of Sin–Kelley later said that he intended the piece to address cultural consumerism, but people read childhood trauma into it, specifically his own childhood trauma, and he decided to embrace that reading. Novelist and cultural critic Jim Lewis, writing in Slate in 2005, called Kelley “the last great 20th-century artist,” noting “how powerful and strange” it was to confront one of his dingy compilations amid the sanctified icons at the Museum of Modern Art. Wrote Lewis: “It certainly threw into question the beliefs
on which the museum is predicated: that art is precious and aesthetics is pure, that form is significant and objects can be redemptive… You stumbled upon this dirty little scene and you could feel the sacred truths just crumbling.”
His later work took on a carnival barker’s glee, holding a dark funhouse mirror toward our shared darker recesses, in ritualistic multimedia installations. After Kelley’s death, several modest memorials went up around LA: a makeshift re-creation of knit afghans, animal toys, and trippy candles near his home in Highland Park; a 24-hour screening of his videos in Eagle Rock; a tribute show of his works at Downtown MOCA, along with works he donated to the museum by artists such as Douglas Huebler and Marnie Weber. If Kelley’s brusque exit leaves many grieving friends and admirers, it also points up the all-too human messiness and discomfort that infused much of his work, and imbued it with such unlikely, pungent staying power. It reminds us that art need not be the bandage or the balm, but at its most potent, it can be the raw wound that reminds us we’re alive.