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Mike Kelley - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor, Conceptual, Performance, and Video Artist

Movements and Styles: Post-Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Video Art, Performance Art, Installation Art

Born: 27 October 1954 - Wayne, Michigan

Died: 31 January 2012 - South Pasadena, California

Mike Kelley Timeline

"Art saved my life. Art was the place that made me want to educate myself. When I became an artist, it was where the most interesting thinkers were."

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Biography of Mike Kelley

Childhood and Education

Born in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan in 1954, Mike Kelley grew up in a working class family as the youngest of four children. Ten years separated Kelley from his older siblings and, as a result, he spent much of his childhood alone, reading in his room. His father, a maintenance worker for the public school system, was not very involved in his children's lives. By contrast, his mother, a cook at Ford Motor Company's cafeteria, was, in Kelley's words, "a complete control freak." Growing up, he had a tumultuous relationship with his parents. In high school, he once wore a thrift-store dress to school just to upset them. His parents were devout Catholics, but by the time Kelley was in first grade, he remembers thinking that religion "was a load of shit."

It was during Kelley's adolescent years that art-making became a serious career option for him. He decided to become an artist in part because "at that time, it was the most despicable thing you could be in American culture. To be an artist at that time had absolutely no value. It was like planned failure." Kelley's parents did not approve of him pursuing such a career, but being the stubborn teenager that he was, he defied them. His father disowned him as a result. While in junior high, Kelley's art teacher, a closeted gay man who taught crafts, would become a surrogate father, supporting him in his interest in art and later inspiring him to incorporate low-brow culture into his work.

Kelley grew up during a time in which Michigan's cities were facing severe crises caused by rapid deindustrialization, the civil rights movement, and economic downturn. This environment fostered a degree of cynicism in the young Kelley, eventually leading him to embrace the anarchist counterculture. Kelley became an avid participant in both the politically far-left White Panther Party and the underground punk music scene. In 1973, while attending the University of Michigan, he co-founded an improv noise band called Destroy All Monsters. Kelley and fellow artist Jim Shaw quit the band three years later to attend graduate school in California.

Early Training

Enrolling at the California Institute of Arts (CalArts) in 1976, Kelley encountered two teachers who would strongly influence his practice: the conceptual artist John Baldessari and the performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson. Fully embracing the ideals of the avant-garde, Kelley explored as wide a variety of media as possible, including performance, video, writing, and traditional crafts. He also began a second experimental band, The Poetics, with his roommates and fellow installation artists Tony Oursler and John Miller. At CalArts, Kelley was especially drawn to performance art and craft media because each, in different ways, posed a challenge to the category, and accepted practices, of fine art. Graduating in 1978, he opted to remain on the west coast, shunning the lure of the New York art world.

Mature and Late Period

After his time at CalArts, Kelley first found success in Europe, with shows in Germany and France garnering particular attention. But while his reputation grew steadily during the 1980s, Kelley's art-world stardom only fully arrived in the subsequent decade. 1992, in particular, proved to be a watershed year, marking the beginning of Kelley's career on the graduate teaching faculty at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he would remain a professor until 2007. He acquired a reputation here as a supportive but tough teacher, whose critiques were always brutally honest. In addition, 1992 saw Kelley participate in the landmark group exhibition, Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, along with fellow California artists and collaborators Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon, Paul McCarthy, and Chris Burden. The show consisted of artists whose works shared "a common vision in which alienation, dispossession, perversity, sex, and violence either dominate the landscape or form disruptive undercurrents," as the show's press release proclaimed. Considered among the more important group exhibitions of the early 1990s, Helter Skelter gained a great deal of attention, and finally secured Kelley's reputation in the United States.

In addition to his teaching and artistic practice, Kelley remained a prolific writer throughout his career, penning articles and essays on a wide range of subjects from art, film, and architecture to subcultural topics as various as Ufology and Mexican wrestling. As in his art, Kelley himself was a man of contradictions. As the art journalist Kelly Crow reveals, "He hated to drive or fly - his agoraphobia and anxiety growing worse over the course of his life. His artworks earned him a fortune, yet he shopped mainly at secondhand stores and wore a pair of his father's red loafers for years. He painted just about every bedroom he ever had a particular shade of cucumber green."

In 2012, at the age of 57, Kelley committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, just as plans for his first major international retrospective were taking shape. He was found in the bathtub with a Smith & Wesson revolver, Xanax, vodka, soda, and a barbecue grill that he had lit after covering the room's vents with duct tape. Taped to the wall beside him was a photo of his ex-girlfriend, Trulee Grace Hall, a young design student whom Kelley had met several years after he stopped teaching. Their relationship had ended a few months prior to his death, and Kelley had also been struggling with numerous personal issues including depression, alcoholism, and the recent passing of his mother and brother. His self-inflicted death shocked the art world, but there were signs. Just before his death, he had confided to a few close friends that he was struggling to keep his faith in art and had threatened to stop making it. In his final interview, for Artillery Magazine, the critic Tulsa Kinney wrote that "...we sat in a darkened living room, and he left the curtains drawn. As we spoke, he blankly stared straight ahead, replying to my questions in a deliberate monotone."

The Legacy of Mike Kelley

Kelley eventually became the leading figure in the Los Angeles art scene, and his championing of Los Angeles led to its international ascendancy as an art capital, paving the way for a generation of future artists to make the city their home, including those - like painter Mark Grotjahn and sculptor Sterling Ruby - who had moved to Los Angeles specifically to study with the artist.

Kelley has had a significant impact upon the subsequent course of contemporary American and European art. The art historian Thomas Crow explains that "he was a figure who was a bridge from the breakout 1960s generation of Minimalists and Conceptualists, who took art away from a rather austere sense of itself and made it into something that could touch on almost every aspect of experience."

Most Important Art

Mike Kelley Famous Art

The Banana Man (1983)

Kelley's first solo video work, The Banana Man, depicts the artist performing in the guise of the eponymous "Banana Man", a minor character from the popular children's television show Captain Kangaroo. While the show was familiar to Kelley from his youth, he had never himself witnessed the Banana Man on screen. Instead, what he described as his "attempt to construct a psychology of the Banana Man" relied entirely on his memories of childhood friends' descriptions of the character. The resulting "series of scenes" is based on two fragments of childhood "hearsay": that the Banana Man liked to pull long items from his many pockets, including toy trains and strings of hot dogs, and that his only vocalisation was an "oooh" sound that accompanied this repetitive activity. In The Banana Man, Kelley explores the possibilities for suggesting individual character by way of the slightest of cues.

Kelley had created performances while still a graduate student at CalArts, often working in collaboration with fellow students including Tony Oursler and Jim Shaw. Of Kelley's early performances, Oursler has recalled that "you couldn't see him perform without feeling invigorated and confused. You realized you were caught up in a tide-pool of Freudian and Jungian misnomers with a punk overtone to it all - he was chaos and utter brilliance." However, Kelley resisted capturing these early performances on video, since he felt uncomfortable recording events that were intended to be witnessed first-hand.

By contrast, just a few years after his graduation from CalArts, this video recording of The Banana Man deliberately exploits the potential of multimedia editing to sustain the illusion of character. As Kelley explains: "Because of the conventions of editing, video and film tend to normalize fracture. The viewer is expected to jump from one image to the next and experience it as a seamless development. To me, this experience of seamlessness seemed to correspond to the notion of unified character."

Kelley's lack of familiarity with the original Banana Man, and his reliance on distant memories, ensures that, despite a full twenty-eight minutes of edited performance, the figure finally remains little more than an absurd cipher. But this incompletion is also an offering to the viewer to fill in the gaps and to project their own sense of this half-forgotten oddball. For Kelley, "it is up to the viewer to come to terms with what this character is". As such, the open-ended nature of The Banana Man seems to resonate with postmodern notions of its time that are still relevant today, suggesting individual subjectivity as an unfixed tissue of fragments heavily determined by the media and other social structures.
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Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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