The first Mike Kelley piece I saw was “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid” in 1989 at the Whitney Biennial. I didn’t like it or understand it. I felt a similar lack of comprehension the first time I came across Frank Stella’s Indian Birds.
Our upbringings could not be more different. I grew up in a family that was supportive of art, going to art museums as a young child with many art books and abstract paintings around the house, not to mention the fact that nearly all of our family friends were European designers and artists who constantly talked about politics, art and culture. Kelley grew up in a far more traditional American setting, one where art was not even an afterthought.
The handcrafted elements of Kelley’s work was completely foreign to me as a device for art making, the elements of kitsch in his work would be kitsch in my childhood home and was not allowed in. So I didn’t understand the blankets and stuffed toys by any stretch. How could this stuff be art?
By the time of Kelley’s mid-career retrospective at the Whitney I started to get it, his retrospective left a profound impression on me and I dragged many friends to see and discuss it. Because our backgrounds were so divergent I never felt the compulsion to use his material means to make my own work but what I got from Kelley was the questioning aspect of what art could be, to ask the difficult questions, to not be afraid and look into ones past or psychology whether culturally or personally and to not be afraid to be garish, bad and unlikable. Kelley’s work forced me to question my tasteful ideas about art and painting, tasteful ideas that were in my way and impeding my own development and that was the best education money cannot buy.
A little over ten years later my work was showcased with Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Bas Jan Ader, Gilbert & George along with Christian Boltanski in a show in Europe. For me at the time it was vindication that what I was doing was important and to be included with people whose work I admired and respected, especially as a relative unknown, gave me a confidence that is in this art world of ours hard to get.
Kelley’s death has left me with the same sadness that I felt when Martin Kippenberger died, the sadness of time passing before it should.