Mike Kelley, by jane dávila

I’ve been drawing inspiration for some of my monthly posts from an anthology called The 20th Century Art Book. Today I randomly opened to a page featuring the Southern California artist, Mike Kelley. He’s been featured in shows at the Whitney in NY and in a PBS documentary.

“Frankenstein” 1989, Mike Kelley

By giving new life to once-loved, furry animals Mike Kelley elicits both sympathy at their abandonmebt and annoyance at their sentamentality. Like a delinquent youth, Kelley places his subjects in suggesteive poses or groupings where they hug each other with a kind of blind compassion. He is a rebellious artist whose humorous response to the downside of life finds expression through a slightly kitsch and tasteless style. His attitude of aesthetic disobedience has its roots in his rejection of the social and moral fabric of American culture.

“More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” and “The Wages of Sin”

About his work, Kelley has said:

I’m more of a Marxist than a symbolist. Always, my interest in popular forms was not to glorify them because I really dislike popular culture in most cases. I think it’s garbage, but that’s the culture I live in and that’s the culture people speak. I’m an avant-gardist.

We’re living in the post-modern age, the death of the avant-garde. So all I can really do now is work with this dominant culture and flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure it, expose it.

Craft Morphology Flow Chart

From the PBS documentary:

His work questions the legitimacy of ‘normative’ values and systems of authority, and attacks the sanctity of cultural attitudes toward family, religion, sexuality, art history, and education. He also comments on and undermines the legitimacy of the concept of victim or trauma culture, which posits that almost all behavior results from some form of repressed abuse.

Serious stuff from a pile of stuffed animals. I think this artist’s work is really interesting. The materials taken out of context and used to create social commentary, and the combination of humor and the unexpected is refreshing. I wish there were more examples of his work available to see on the web, but you probably need to see them in person to get the full experience.

7 Responses to “Mike Kelley, by jane dávila”

  1. 1 terrygrant December 19, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    Mike Kelley seems pretty serious, but like Gabrielle I am slightly amused–maybe especially by the sock monkeys. I have always hated those things and find them kitschy beyond even amused tolerance. I am reminded of the recent Germaine Greer quote “Cuddly toys are ugly monstrosities – and it’s time we stopped our kids from fetishising them”. It was met by such a storm of indignation, but I secretly agreed with her.

  2. 2 gabrielleswain December 19, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    June and Jane,
    While I do find Kelly’s work interesting…certainly a statement…I am slightly amused….which is probably not the reaction he would wish. Certainly, June, you hit the nail on the head about the craft of quilts. However, I think that is saying more about the maker than the medium. Art, for me is about the message not the medium….so I fear we are falling short if we can’t clearly convey our intent.
    Jane, you are also correct about watercolor images. The medium does lend itself to soft and soothing; yet, I think in the hands of someone it could be more assertive.
    Interesting questions for us to ponder…can we accomplish these messages…worth a try. Anyone game?
    Thanks, Jane, forgetting my little gray cells firing.

  3. 3 June December 16, 2007 at 4:26 pm


    I’m not exactly sure what you mean, even though I read and reread. Am I correct in thinking that you are saying that that Kelly’s use of soft toys to make a post-modern statement comes out of a “lack of available data” or his mis-diagnosis of the why such materials are used originally? Maybe you have too many ideas here for my wee brain to encompass.

    I am most intrigued by your notion of the “genuine understanding of post-modernity.” Tell us more.

  4. 4 frodo441 December 16, 2007 at 3:00 am

    …not really…it’s more compositional art from (like many) frustrated
    artists using many mediums at their disposal to try and find some resolve with the “one’s own frustration” to “make a statement” in a world that it’s hard to pin down exactly what is going on in the social fabric of contemporary art circles for lack of a real historical understanding of past times…people through around the concept of “post modernity” like it was a “red badge of courage” and talk or “aspiring technocracies” but for lack of some resolve (coming from the individual because of some deep seated anxiety to define it) a genuine understanding of post modernity and social determination of a people that lived almost a century ago…coming to grips with the reality of “a Victorian bar”…a social statement isn’t made up of bits and pieces of the “cabbage patch dream” or the disfunction of “emo”…but rather it’s a statement of the necessity to use available materials not to imbue it for something that it’s not…it is good…but it’s a frustration to define something in lack of available data…or mis-diagnosed.

  5. 5 June December 15, 2007 at 9:16 am


    You make an excellent point about the choice of medium. It isn’t so much what can be done with the medium as what the medium conveys, if that makes any sense. I would never have imagined, however, conveying what Mike Kelly does with sock monkeys. I suppose that’s the point of being an artist.

    I saw this quote from a photographer on another blog today and liked it: “Art asserts that nothing is banal, which is to say that a serious landscape picture is metaphor. If a view of geography does not imply something more enduring than a specific piece of terrain, then the picture will hold us only briefly… In this sense we would in most respects choose thirty minutes with Edward Hopper’s painting Sunday Morning to thirty minutes on the street that was his subject; with Hopper’s vision we see more.” Robert Adams, “Beauty in Photography.”

    I’m pondering how the painting of representational landscape, more or less adequately, is really informing my abstract work. It’s fairly astonishing — it may well be that the representational stuff is meant for the artist herself, while the follow-ups are to convey something to the rest of the world.

    Don’t know how that fits with your post, but it’s snowing here in Montana and seems like a good day for ruminations.

  6. 6 Jane Davila December 15, 2007 at 8:53 am

    I see two different things to ponder here. One is that the dichotomy between the medium and the message (like cuddly animals/innocent children’s toys and abuse, overconsumption, etc) can have a direct impact on the strength of the message. That dichotomy can engage the viewer much longer than a more “expected” medium or it can cause too much of a disconnect.

    The other is that some media simply don’t lend themselves well to “dark” messages. I’ve been looking for “angry” watercolors for example. There must be some, but there are probably a heck of a lot more “angry” oils. As artists, we have to decide whether the medium we choose is the most effective for our message, whether the choice of medium strengthens or lessens our message, and whether the juxtaposition between message and medium helps or hinders in the eyes of the viewer.

  7. 7 June December 14, 2007 at 9:32 am

    I’m going to have to leave the computer in a few minutes, so this is a rather un-considered thought (not that that’s anything new).

    I’ve been away from the textile work and painting for a couple of weeks and going back even to my rather crude textile (quilted) art, I see that it’s really difficult to diverge from the elegance of craft and to make strong statements within or perhaps because of that elegance. My thought about Mike Kelly and others who work in similar fashion is that the textile materials almost require a “violation” in order for them to be taken out of the tasteful home dec arena. Even the quilted art which has a strong and perhaps not pleasing message (I’m thinking anti-war, child abuse, rape, etc) always seems to be tasteful and a bit too nice for the message to make its point.

    As I said, a quick thought that may bring responses I’m not necessarily going to like (add snort) — but thanks, Jane, for making me think about this in a somewhat (but not entirely) new way.

    And if any of you start your comment by saying “what’s wrong with the pretty or tasteful” I will remind you that some old codger said that taste was the death of art. I also understand that people often want the disjuncture between the “pretty surface” and the “terrible reality of the message” as part of what they are hoping for. But very very little of the quilted art that I see elicits anything like the strength of the message of even the violated sock monkeys. Let alone something like Kara Walker’s work, or Tracy Emins, or Picasso’s Guernica.

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