Remembering Mike Kelley with His 10 Funniest Artworks

02/02/2012 9:47 AM |

Young Mike Kelley at left; more recently at right.

  • Young Mike Kelley at left; more recently at right.

Yesterday the seminal contemporary American artist Mike Kelley, who was born in Detroit in 1954 and had been based in Los Angeles for many years, was found dead at his home there from an apparent suicide—especially worthwhile obituaries are in the L.A. Times, New York Times, Guardian and on Glenn O’Brien’s blog. Working in an incredibly broad range of media from drawings and paintings to video, installation and sculptures made from eviscerated stuffed animals, Kelley rose to prominence in the 1990s. He had recently been selected to participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, which will be his eighth. Throughout his many different uses of media and collaborations, perhaps the greatest constant in Kelley’s practice was a sharp sense of humor that often incorporated pop culture references and abject imagery. Accordingly, this selection of his funniest work is not for the squeamish.

Mike Kelley, Monkeys Ass, 1981 (courtesy MOCA)

  • Mike Kelley, “Monkey’s Ass,” 1981 (courtesy MOCA)

“Monkey’s Ass” (1981): Undoubtedly the funniest of a series of such paintings formed by two joined triangular canvases, and of Kelley’s many, many paintings of buttholes.

Mike Kelley, The Territorial Hound, 1984 (courtesy MoMA).

  • Mike Kelley, “The Territorial Hound,” 1984 (courtesy MoMA).

“The Territorial Hound” (1984): This should make Kelley’s allegiance in the cultural rivalry between Los Angeles and New York fairly clear.

“Family Tyranny/Cultural Soup” with Paul McCarthy (1987): McCarthy was something of a mentor for Kelley, and they collaborated several times, but this is their funniest video together (with the possible exception of “Heidi,” 1992).

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin, 1987 (courtesy the Whitney Museum).

  • Mike Kelley, “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin,” 1987 (courtesy the Whitney Museum).

“More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin” (1987): Kelly’s many sculptures made from cut-apart and flattened stuffed animals are nightmarish delights.

Mike Kelley, Eviscerated Corpse, 1989 (courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago).

“Eviscerated Corpse” (1989): Like many Kelley works, this one uncomfortably turns cutesy materials into an incredibly violent image.

Mike Kelley, Heart with Fancy Hat, 1989 (courtesy MoMA).

  • Mike Kelley, “Heart with Fancy Hat,” 1989 (courtesy MoMA).

“Heart with a Fancy Hat” (1989): Mike Kelley, master of the hilarious matter-of-fact title.

Mike Kelley, Arena #10 (Dogs), 1990 (courtesy Metro Pictures).

  • Mike Kelley, “Arena #10 (Dogs),” 1990 (courtesy Metro Pictures).

“Arena #10 (Dogs)” (1990): It’s the stuffed dog draft-stopper centipede!

Mike Kelley, Jesse Helms Protest Sign, 1990 (courtesy MoMA).

  • Mike Kelley, “Jesse Helms Protest Sign,” 1990 (courtesy MoMA).

“Jesse Helms Protest Sign” (1990): Sometimes Kelley’s critiques of bourgeois values and conservatism of all sorts became very pointed and political.

Mike Kelley, Farm Girl, 2006 (courtesy Gagosian).

  • Mike Kelley, “Farm Girl,” 2006 (courtesy Gagosian).

“Farm Girl” (2006): Surely the most expressive scarecrow since The Wiz.

Mike Kelley, Fuck Me, Im Irish, 2009 (Courtesy Gagosian)

  • Mike Kelley, “Fuck Me, I’m Irish,” 2009 (Courtesy Gagosian)

“Fuck Me, I’m Irish” (2009): Undoubtedly the best piece of St. Patrick’s Day art ever made.

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt

One Comment

  • Mike Kelley was one of the ’90s art-world pioneers in estheticizing punk. His installation “The Uncanny” (Gemeentemuseum, Arnhem, as a part of Sonsbeek 93) juxtaposed records from Faust, Black Flag, Big Black, and Flipper with porno magazines, kitsch toys, and comics. His period in Destroy All Monsters was useful for his self-stylization as an “underground artist,” although Kelley had worked in the most conventional way for the art market since the ’80s (lastly with Gagosian Gallery).
    In 1994 he displayed typical art-world distanciation and revisionism in bemoaning punk’s ahistoricity, while cynically adding, “a few punks were interesting: Darby Crash, his suicide and all of that.” (