“The starting point for much of Mike Kelley’s works are historical facts, religious beliefs, cultural phenomena, and psychological dynamics. From the stockpile of collective experience, he digs out a few nuggets which are often the banal conveyors of the traces of those large systems of belief. Kelley transforms ideas into objects, as would a Conceptual artist… Because of his underlying skepticism about the “truth” of any of the systems with which he begins, he riffs, invents, and elaborates, giving free reign to invention”—Elizabeth Sussman.
(Elizabeth Sussman, in José Lebrero Stals, (ed.), Mike Kelley 1986-1996, Barcelona, 1997, p. 26).
Mike Kelley fabricated a diverse artistic persona that included experimentation in rock music, performance art, painting, and sculpture. Similarly, he often created art by cobbling together found objects. Kelley’s assemblages encourage new ways of perceiving the insignificant, the banal, the cast off and abandoned. They inspire infinite dialogues between the conglomerated articles as well as the viewer and the work as a whole. Kelley’s appropriated everyday objects act as signifiers of broader social and cultural tenets and intends for them to challenge the thought processes of his viewers. Kelley works with apparently discarded household items to examine the feelings of pathos and nostalgia and the psychological links between humans and their possessions.
Kelley’s interest in the insignificant objects of human lives is apparent in his Memory Ware series. He named the series after a form of Canadian folk art that involves decorating keepsake ashtrays, boxes, water jugs, and other household items. Memory ware pieces could be decorated with buttons, seashells, and beads, and displayed as commemorative objects for special events in the life of their maker. Kelley referred to his Memory Ware works as paintings, but, comprised of mismatched beads, jewelry, and buttons attached to a panel, Memory Ware Flat #24 most closely resembles a mosaic. Kelley positioned his materials on the board in an overwhelmingly chaotic clutter of junk, an “orgasmic” visual smorgasbord (M. Kelley, “The meaning is confused spatiality, framed,” Grenoble, 1999, p. 63). One can spot mismatched earrings, hoop earrings, bangles, a multitude of cross charms, a button advertising ‘Camp Beverly Hills,’ and charms reading ‘I <3 Jesus,’ ‘True Love,’ and even the name ‘Edie’ amidst the overwhelming jumble of shiny gold materials.
Many of Kelley’s sculptures, particularly those comprised of stuffed animals, conjure feelings of pathos and speculation about the owners of the ‘abandoned’ objects. Kelley affronted nostalgic interpretations of the Memory Ware series by claiming that they were comprised of unused materials in his studio that had never been meaningful to anyone. Relaying the psychological dimension to his work, Kelley subverts the expectations of his viewers and asks them to dissect their reactions. He also plays on the idea of unfulfilled desires. Viewers are tempted to touch the intricate surfaces of his Memory Ware paintings, or even to pluck a glimmering button or pin out of them. The pieces cannot be removed, and continually tantalize the viewer.
Kelley blends both high and lowbrow craft in his works. His preference for assembling objects that are commonly found in domestic settings, like blankets, stuffed animals, and jewelry, suggest absent owners, particularly women and children. His work recalls that of artists associated with the Feminist art movement in the 1970s, who sought to reclaim traditionally female domestic crafts as fine art. In fact, Kelley’s entire artistic output can be interpreted as an assault against the masculine stereotypes surrounding Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. Paintings like Memory Ware Flat #24 sardonically reference the allover abstract paintings done by New York school artists like Jackson Pollock. Kelley did not downplay the influence of Abstract Expressionist painting on his work. One of his favorite professors at CalArts was Abstract Expressionist painter Gerome Kamrowski. However, Kelley was clear that his work should be interpreted as a reaction against the movement: “I liked the goopy, slightly disgusting surfaces of Abstract Expressionism and I thought such surfaces could be used to great advantage in combination with various kinds of more loaded images, images that didn’t lend themselves so easily to abstract equivalency” (M. Kelly in José Lebrero Stals, ed., Mike Kelley 1986-1996 exh. cat., Barcelona, 1997). Memory Ware Flat #24 combines the chaotic, allover composition of an Abstract Expressionist painting with banal, easily recognizable objects. Kelley, in separating the jewelry from its intended function and arranging the pieces en masse, highlights the formal properties of the pieces, yet retains their individuality and their existence rooted in the material world, as well as their feminine associations.
Kelley began working as an artist at a time of political and social upheaval, and themes of psychological trauma and memory infuse his art. Kelley witnessed the impact of the Feminist and Civil Rights movements, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the AIDs epidemic in the United States. His work with ownerless objects can be interpreted as meditations on absence and death, whether from war, disease, or natural causes. He also became an artist at a time when Conceptual and Minimalist art had challenged not only the act of painting or sculpting a recognizable image, but the very acts of painting or sculpting themselves. In the aftermath of ruptures in the fabric of American society and notions of art-making, artists like Kelley were able to experiment as if they had nothing to lose. Feeling disillusioned by a government and society appearing to be breaking down around them, they felt they had no one to trust but themselves.