Mike Kelley is born in Wayne near Detroit (USA) in 1954. He studies at the University of Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 1972 to 1976 and then enrols at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia to study with Douglas Huebler and John Baldessari. He graduates there in 1978. Impressed by the literary works of William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, he soon becomes interested in the theatrical stagings of European Action Art. Rather than opting for the minimalist notions of the American art scene of the time, he is attracted by the politically motivated works and Performances of the Fluxus movement and the Vienna »Aktionisten.« Installation and Performance artist Kelley who also performs as a musician, is fascinated by the aesthetic fringes of the sub- and trash-culture as well as the works of the Hippie movement. Among his sources of inspiration are Laurie Anderson, Bruce Naumann, and Jonathan Borofsky. There are first contacts to the European art scene in 1979. As a member of a Noise music group, Kelley accompanies the performance of Nitsch’s mystery theater in Los Angeles. Kelley’s first Performances are staged in 1979 (Poltergeist, Los Angeles). The production that plays with existing fears the 1982 film of the same title very successfully evokes at a later date, makes him known to a larger audience. Kelley’s work is presented in numerous solo exhibitions, for example in the Metro Picture Gallery, New York. In 1981 he stages his first Performance (Confusion) in New York.
Kelley searches for the obscene and childish patterns of suppression of modern society, whose psychological and intellectual contents he captures in everyday relics and artefacts. He creates scenarios of the uncanny and grotesque, whose psychoanalytic aspects are of special interest to him. Art critic Colin Gardener calls his works a »mixture of Ferdinand Saussure and Sesame Street« (Art Week 1983). With this statement he names Kelley’s way of dealing with interpretive patterns of an everyday world that is pervaded with mass products and the apparently naïvely playful realizations of the patterns by the artist. In his Performance Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile, staged in New York in 1985, seemingly absurd allusions and puns together with pictorial and theatrical elements, with drawings, sculptures, and photographs, form a complex structure of meaning that is related to politics, art, and philosophy. Kelley uses genres of the mass media such as comics, cartoons, as well as video films as striking pictorial means of expression.
From 1986 on, Kelley’s works assume simpler structures. There are now more projects focused on single elements rather than on the spatiotemporal. Unified work groups and series gain increasing importance, among others the project Half a Man (1987). With the Installation Pay for Your Pleasure (1987) Kelley stages 40 paintings after photographs of poets, thinkers and philosophers. To the portraits of well-known persons he adds their statements on the links between art and crime. As auratic and voyeuristic aim of this flight of pictures he chooses the painting of a murderer. Aesthetics and philosophy, this is Kelley’s lesson, construct rational pretexts to sanction the savoring of fears.
Stuffed toys are of great importance in Kelley’s works, and after 1986 he often includes them in his Installations. He uses stuffed animals as defamiliarizing artefacts of industrially-produced stages of childhood, whose potential sentimentality he counteracts with traces of usage and decay, but also through mutilation and intentional mise en scène (Lumpenprole 1991). In his installation Heidi (1992), realized together with Paul McCarthey, the idealized image of nature becomes the focus of his scathing ridicule: In wooden model constructions he imitates alpine cabins and idyllic barns, punctuating this ideal world with his sculptural and pictorial absurdities.
Kelley takes part in the Documenta 9 in 1992; in 1993 the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, dedicates a large retrospective to his work. With Educational Complex (1995), Kelley delivers a sarcastic reconstruction of his own educational past.
Mike Kelley dies on Januar the 1st in Los Angeles.
The uncanny by Mike Kelley, artist: Ausst.-Kat. Tate Liverpool, hg. v. Christoph Grunenberg, Köln 2004
Welchman, John C.; Graw, Isabelle; Vidler Anthony: Mike Kelley, London 1999
Mike Kelley, Catholic Tastes: Ausst.-Kat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1993
Bartman, W. S.; Barosh, M. (Hg.): Mike Kelley, Art Resources Transfer, New York 1992
Mike Kelley: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, Frankfurt/M. u.a. 1992