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Contemporary American artist Mike Kelley is known for his works that combine a wide variety of objects, including sculpture, textile, drawing, painting, photography, collage, video and sound installations, writing, found objects (most famously stuffed animals), and photocopies. Set up in galleries and museums, these installations were meant to be interacted with, and performance was a often a key component of Kelley’s work. As art critic Jerry Saltz claimed in 2005, Kelley’s pieces were indicative of the “clusterfuck aesthetics,”or overstimulation of media commonly found in contemporary art.
As a youth, Kelley was a member of the band Destroy All Monsters in Wayne Michigan, his hometown. Born to a working class family (his father was the head of maintenance for the local school district and his mother was a cook), the artist’s upbringing and involvement in the Detroit underground music scene influenced his work. Throughout his career he explored themes of repression, class, politics, and gender, and his art brought upquestions about normality and perversion. In his later work, biography and autobiography became increasingly important.
Kelley received his BFA from the University of Michigan in 1976. He then moved to California and graduated from CalArts with an MFA in 1978. Inspired by his instructors at Cal, including John Baldessari, Laurie Anderson, David Askevold, Douglas Heubler, and Jonathon Borofsky, Kelley became part of the Los Angeles art scene, and in 1979 his mixed-media performance Poltergeist in collaboration with Askevold gained critical attention.
Using a variety of textiles and stuffed animals, Kelley’s work in the 1980s was predominantly satirical and represented the investment of love and devotion people give to these objects. One of Kelley’s stuffed animals appears on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty. The band had previously collaborated with the artist and provided music during an hour-and-a-half recitation of the poem Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile.
Inspired by pop culture, one of Kelley’s last works was a collaborative sculpture series entitled Kandor, after the city on planet Krypton from which Kal-El, or Superman, escaped. On January 31, 2012, Kelley was found dead of an apparent suicide.Coming together through Facebook, his fans organized and recreated one of his famous works, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaidbetween February and March 2012 in a parking lot near the artist’s studio. Retrospectives of Kelley’s work include exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1993), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (1997), the Tate Liverpool (2004), and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2012).
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