Mike Kelley

(1954 - 2012)

LAMA set the auction record for any work on paper by Mike Kelley in the October 12, 2014 Modern Art & Design Auction when Lot 215, Nazi War Cave #1, realized $740,000.

About The Artist

Born of middle-class roots in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, Los Angeles-based contemporary artist Mike Kelley questioned the very values that he grew up with. In punk-pop work that ranges from performance, sculpture, installation, and more, Kelley’s oeuvre is extensive, conceptual, unpredictable, and challenging. The artist explains in an interview with PBS Art 21: “I really dislike popular culture. All you can do is work with this dominant culture and flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure it.”

In an exemplary work first presented at his 1987 solo show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Kelley laid down tattered blankets upon which he arranged disconcerting tableaux of stuffed animals, the type that are ubiquitous at thrift-stores and flea-markets. A ten-foot wall-hanging, entitled More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid, hung alongside, comprised of additional found plush toys and afghan throws. These pieces were shown and purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art later that year, and the Hirshhorn Museum mounted a show surrounding the found stuffed animal pieces in 1991. The toy-based works sparked a conversation that would never be quelled—critics pointed to the unusual use of crocheted, fabric material, raising the possibility of child abuse in Kelley’s past. Instead of correcting or silencing such unfounded opinions and conclusions, Kelley embraced the role of “victim,” and continued to explore implications of victimhood, the subconscious, and ritual throughout his career. The most ambitious and extensive example of these themes is the burlesque, musical spectacle Day is Done (2005-2006), the culmination of Kelley’s ongoing “repressed-memory” series, Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction, begun in 1995. The installation and multi-channel video work spans over two-and-a-half hours, and is made up of thirty-two separate, bawdy enactments inspired by found high school yearbooks and local newspaper photos. One vignette, inspired by a photo of a candle lighting ceremony and another photo of men dressed as Nazis, features two rappers taunting a puritanically-dressed woman about her weight. The entertaining yet at times nonsensical outcomes in these outlandish videos challenge American perceptions of the “normative” and address our collective unconscious and the societal traumas inflicted by our relationships and activities.

Unprecedented works like the above-mentioned earned Kelley grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1987 and 1997, and the 1997 Skowhegan Medal in Mixed Media. The artist has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Tate Liverpool; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and Kunsthalle, Basel. His commercial and art world success and a career-long investigation of the troubled psyche made his devastating suicide in 2012 all the more poignant as well as puzzling. In 2014, Kelley was the subject of a posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 


Crow, Kelly. “The Escape Artist.” The Wall Street Journal, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.
“Mike Kelley: Day is Done.“ Online video clip. Art 21, 30 Apr. 2010. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.