R.I.P. Mike Kelley

An iconic image of Mike Kelley

The news of L.A. artist Mike Kelley’s suicide has left me reeling and bereft.  The world is suddenly a much less interesting place without him.

Mike Kelley was perhaps my first real art world love.  I’d shaken off my infatuation with the Preraphaelites in high school and signed up for the whole art school experience as a rebellion, as a middle finger to all the other choices I didn’t have at the time.  I had no voice of my own, no medium I’d mastered.  I was stumbling along, and I stumbled on Kelley.

I remember going to the Newport Beach museum where this guy I’d never heard of had a solo show with peices like The Banana Man and Kappa (a scatological Japanese fairy). There were things made out of crocheted animals.  Freud and everything else was turned on its head.  My heart beat faster, looking at this show.  I went back over and over. Having never been to a circus I suddenly felt like a kid who’d been taken to see the clowns for the first time: terrified and giddy.

Later, Kelley actually came to my school to speak.  He was perhaps one of the few artists and writers who meeting in person was not a let-down.  The school I attended in the late 80s did indeed suck– not least because the chair at the time was a misogynist who was sexually harassing his women students. (Later, a group of women won a law suit against the school, but that is a matter for another post.)  In this darkness, Kelley was a light– he was, to me, a feminist artist,  deconstructing received notions of the body and framing women’s work in subversive ways.  He showed up looking like a sinister mod, with this crazy black hair and pegged trousers. He was funny, captivating and able to talk about very dark things with a lightness and beneath it all was a sly compassion.

Though I ended up working in very traditional mediums– oil paint and printmaking– I carried Kelley’s work around with me as a reminder of what is possible.

I can only think his suicide is some sort of medical failure– depression too often goes untreated. I end with this youtube video and hope it isn’t in bad taste– in it Mike Kelley talks about what he’s buying at Ameoba Music in Hollywood.  It sums up for me his unassuming presence and his creepy fascinations and characteristically gleeful attitude toward the abject. I can’t believe he’s gone.

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