Mike Kelley is one of the most provocative and influential figures in Contemporary art. A leading artists to emerge from the West Coast art scene in the United States since the early 1990s, his work negotiates a charged terrain of desire, dread and sociopathology in everyday life. With deadpan humor, he invests childhood toys, kitsch, and ordinary objects with subversive meaning.
Seven of these eight photographs are of singularly loved and used stuffed animals. One is Mike Kelley's high school yearbook photo. Seen through his lens, these animals look demonic, sexual, odd and scary. They look so much like the stuffed animals that we remember playing with as children and, yet, their disturbed eyes seem to reveal the desires that we grew into in adolescence and the perversions that most of us hide as adults. These photos make us realize how much our perceptions have changed, how concretely our paradise is lost. They also remind us that stuffed animals are made for children by adults and we must consequently wonder what subliminal naughtiness these beacons of innocence play and carry with them (intentionally or involuntarily).
By including his own high-school yearbook photo here, Kelley becomes both an object of the public's adult gaze and the power above that gaze. He knows that he looks awkward, stuffed, used and abused; and he offers up that image because he realizes that it cannot be possessed as anything other than an image. Here is a past that is eternally lost and, yet, will always be visually present.
Kelley's gaze is not nostalgic, however. In an interview with the German art critic Daniel Kothenschulte, Mike Kelley said that "I am not 'going back' to reclaim some longed-for positive experience from my youth, but to reexamine, from an adult point of view, some aesthetic experience that I feel I was unable to understand at that time....But I would have to say that I believe this pleasure results more from my enjoyment of the the playful, formal, and perverse games of reconstructing and inventing the past than it does from some joyful recovery of lost experience." Far from nostalgia, Kelley's laugh is an anthem of sardonic pleasure.
This is a work that makes us as uncomfortable as possible in our encounter with childhood. The band Sonic Youth used the image of the orange bug on the cover its album "Dirty" and the rest of the piece was featured in the CD's insert. Being dirty as an adult is very different from being dirty as a child and it is this dichotomy that lies at the heart of the piece. Ahh... Youth--a cry of depair, a pleasant remembrance, an exasperated sigh, a sexual come on.