Mike Kelley (1954-2012)
Mike Kelley (1954-2012)
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Property from an Important Midwest Collection
Mike Kelley (1954-2012)


Mike Kelley (1954-2012)
found afghans, handmade stuffed yarn dolls, ribbon, plastic dreidels, pipe cleaners, Styrofoam, googly eyes and wire, in six parts
smallest: 6 ¼ x 19 x 20 in. (15.9 x 48.3 x 50.8 cm.)
largest: 7 ½ x 53 3/8 x 50 ½ in. (18 x 135.6 x 128.3 cm.)
overall dimensions variable
Executed in 1990.
Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
I. Graw, A. Vidler & J. Welchman, eds., Mike Kelley, London, 1999, p. 70 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Mike Kelley, 1990.
Hamburg, Kunstverein, Paul McCarthy/Mike Kelley, March-May 1995.
London, Skarstedt Gallery, Childish Things: Vija Celmins, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, October-November 2015.

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing

Lot Essay

Playfully engaging in a push-and-pull between the deep recesses of memory and their darker psychological underpinnings, Mike Kelley’s Untitled reveals the actuality of an idealized reminiscence that has undergone the ravages of time. Within its intimate proportions, the present work manages to capture many of the artist’s themes that have made his work some of the most influential art in recent generations. Part of his acclaimed Half a Man series (1987-1993) this collection of three found Afghan rugs, each inhabited by its artist-made octopus (each composed of yarn and Styrofoam), draws together motifs of childhood, innocence, memory and sexuality, which dominate this era of Kelley’s career. One of the most vibrant examples of this series, Untitled exemplifies many foundational concepts for Kelley’s career as a whole: these animals function as forgotten vessels of nostalgia, love and affection, or symbols of familial obligation and emotional debt. In the same way that Kelley’s performative sculptures are activated by viewer participation, the stuffed animals have been previously activated by the children who once cherished them, imbuing the toys with a lingering and haunting trace of anonymous tenderness and significance. Seemingly passive and innocuous, the series title and the objects’ positions, facing-off, also imply violent or traumatic confrontation. The warmth of the connections they once maintained with their owners is implicated and subverted in the emotional psychodrama of Kelley’s art.
Begun in 1987, the Half a Man project comprises distinct groupings of works that address “in one way or another, issues of gender-specific imagery and the family” (M. Kelley, Minor Histories, New York, 2004, p. 14). Each sub-series of Half a Man, including Stuffed Animals, Arenas, and Afghan Works, utilizes psychologically charged found objects to illustrate a narrative of innocence lost. Stuffed animals along with other found objects are arranged on or under blankets that have been laid out on the floor.
But this project of excavation goes beyond his own biography: Kelley masterfully digs through the reserves of nostalgia—that of his own and of the collective conscious—to brilliantly disturb the memories of childhood from its paradise. Like major Postmodern contemporaries of the time Kelley’s work pairs highly-tactile, incredibly detailed aesthetics that teeter between the kitsch and the sublime. Jeff Koons’s work resonates here, with many similar themes of innocence, nostalgia, awe and desire. Though, unlike Koons, Kelley does not coddle his viewers as he immerses them into the aura of childhood; instead he lures them into the safety of a familial aesthetic before revealing that this object—an article once held most dear— is already decayed.
“My shift of interest to the individual craft item led me away from my earlier accumulation works into the Arenas, Dialogues, and Afghan series consisting of stuffed animals in arrangements on blankets laid on the floor. In these works I played the inclination to project into the figures, to construct an inner narrative around them, against the viewer’s awareness of his or her physical presence. This self-consciousness was produced by using extremely worn and soiled craft materials. The viewer’s immediate tendency to be sucked into a narrativizing situation is repelled when they get close enough to sense the unpleasant tactile qualities of the craft materials. Fear of becoming soiled counters the urge to idealize” (M. Kelley, “In the Image of Man”, Mike Kelley 1985-1996, exh. cat., Museu d’art Contemporain de Barcelona, 1997, p. 68).
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1954, Kelley attended the University of Michigan in the early 70s before relocating to Los Angeles in 1976, where he received his master’s degree at CalArts, a school deeply rooted in the teachings of Conceptual art. At this time, Kelley’s work was dedicated mostly to what he termed “demonstrated” objects, or performative sculptures. In the form of drums, megaphones and cardboard musical instruments, these pieces required audience participation in order for them to be activated as art objects. This concept of “activation” and audience participation would come to influence Kelley’s performances, a practice that would span the greater part of his career; it would also become a fundamental tenet to his stuffed animal and woven works of the late 80s and 90s, of which Untitled is an example.
The scope of Mike Kelley’s influence continues to resonate among artists of his generation and young artists of today. Working in every form and medium – from drawing, painting and sculpture to performance, video, photography and even music – Kelley’s output is defined by an acute examination, deconstruction and critique of normative society, as well as cultural taboo. His relentless and unflinching approach to art-making serves as a reminder of the power and sheer necessity of self-expression in our ever-changing world.
We now view Kelley as a significant player in 20th century art; his practice mining the audience’s attention by the warm, familiar, imagery of childhood mementos that upon further examination might uproot their ever-present undercurrents; incorporated in installations, sculpture, photographs, found-objects to engage in the restless examination and re-examination of society and self.

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