in Profiles | 20 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

Mike Kelley (1954–2012): Ten Tributes

Friends and collaborators remember his life and work

in Profiles | 20 MAR 12

John C. Welchman

Co-director of The Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

Artist, noise musician, writer, benefactor and Catholic misfit, Mike Kelley was a wholehearted and cantankerous sage with an indelible blue-collar background, who was sometimes so wired-in to the elemental stakes of the American vernacular that during certain on-song weeks he generated enough ideas and imaginings to last another sort of artist an entire career. While his day job transformed him inexorably, sometimes painfully, into a high-end artist, even into a minor celebrity, he never relinquished his preferred role as a counter-culture warrior fighting for the release of the voices and skills he always felt that mainstream institutions kept in positions of muteness or invisibility. He tried to understand his culture from the bottom up, scouring thrift stores and yard sales for its refuse and cast-offs, addressing with an inimitable mix of caustic scepticism and what I can only describe as temporizing honour, the languages and assumptions of education, adolescence, crafts and DIY, holidays, pop psychology, parades and rituals, fandom, newspaper reportage, public address and a thousand other conditions of daily life.

When I wrote what was probably the first A–Z survey of Mike’s work in 1999, I titled it ‘The Mike Kelleys’, a playful reminder of the staggering plurality of positions and personae that made up his artistic identity. What was already true at the end of the ’90s was further underlined in the ensuing decade during which Mike’s work broke out in a breathtaking sequence of new syntheses between means and materials that had often coexisted (video, sculpture, performance, music, photography) but were now cross-hatched in a careening agenda of issues and formats that engendered the epic cyclicality and cabaret Americana of Day is Done (2005); the collusion of sci-fi projection, personal fantasy and vitrinous colour represented by the ‘Kandors’ works (1999–2011); and, amid all this, a return to painting and drawing – with a caricatural bent – mostly made in a small private studio adjacent to his former residence.

Mike Kelley, The Banana Man, 1981, production still. All images unless stated courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Los Angeles. Photograph: Jim McHugh

Much of Mike’s work refers to the erosion, falling-off and unanchored rehabilitation of belief in contemporary life, as its religious and ethical tread has been utterly worn away. One set of relations between belief and religion and their social effects directed them through the conditions and experiences of art itself – viewed as an irresistible token of the fallen nature of humankind. Mike’s association of art with guilt, criminality and behavioural extremism courses through the 43 quotations selected from a constellation of poets, artists, novelists, popes and philosophers, from Plato and Mikhail Bakunin to Edgar Degas and Oscar Wilde, painted onto monochrome portraits of their authors (in red, green, purple, orange, etc.) in Pay for Your Pleasure (1988). This figurative mosaic of dark, aphoristic opinion correlated art with savagery, extremism, lawlessness, outrage, cunning, destruction, murder, madness and acts of random violence. The cumulative effect of the analogies underlines the immoral and ungodly impulses of art and, in effect, generates a demonized aesthetic, so that by virtue of its explicit predication on sin, malice and monstrosity, art production becomes something like the opposite of atonement.

Mike was unflinching about the associations he made, and fearless about their implications. He looked at things and people so fully in the face that what he saw often passed right through them. I think he saw right through himself too, even into the place where he is now. So death was, inevitably, one of the things at which he stared, as ever unremittingly; and a dimension of his work was ventured as a kind of repurposed latter-day Counter-Reformation in which the place of the low was incarnated in the representation of the ultra-high by haunting the holy image itself with symbolic debasement. At the same time, Kelley’s religious vision elides not art per se with holy artist, but art – in the form of a potent Modernist belief system coded by colour – with that most literally mortal of sins, the death of the artist by suicide. He refers to Lent Felt (1985), ‘the first banner I did in th[e] series’ as ‘an Easter banner in Rothko colours’. Throughout Mike’s career, colour’s fearfulness and joy has played a special role in his figuring of things, becoming in effect a semantic lubricant that loosens up the relations between art and religious objects and symbols, as well as among the signs that secure – and torment – formations of class and conviction, family and pleasure. 

Mike Kelley, Kandor 1 (detail), 2007, mixed media and video, 2.7 x 2.4 x 2.9 m. Photograph: Frederik Nilsen

As ever making no bones about it, Mike used colour and concurrence to tie the Easter festival of death and resurrection to the demise of a modern artist whose search for sublimity or transcendence was perhaps the most intense and tragic of any such quest in the 20th century. We encounter here one of the most consequential of Mike’s unravelings of religious symbology – and a clear reminder of his precept that trying to make Modernism spiritual is ‘very sad’. For instead of working with allusion, cross-reference or allegory, Kelley assails the rote dependence of religious ritual on objectivity and repetition, ‘redeeming’ it in some sense from its infinite location outside of time. By launching waves of interference between the historical events of Christianity and their theological codification, and episodes from both modern art and everyday life, Kelley bears witness to his proposition that ‘the history of Western art is also the history of Christian thought’. At the same time, he genetically re-engineers the structural co-dependency of these terms, exposing their false purity and submitting them to a kind of tautological dissolve.

Mike unflinchingly diverted the bloody wound of Christ through the self-mortification of Rothko, an association triggered for him by a black and white photograph of the artist slumped in a pool of blood. But in Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile (1985) he indulged in an even bolder reverie on the palette of corporeal distress inspired by the torment of the crucifixion: ‘The shade of Christ’s bruises are constant no matter what skin tone acts as their background. Black Jesus, Red Jesus, Yellow Jesus, White Jesus all lie together in the same melting pot where fatty purple cooks to the top. This plum field painting of vital fluid darkens in hue as it flutters down into the depths … Down, down, down, this tint is the initiator of my mind’s fall into the shaft of memory.’ Mike mixes, as only Mike could, devotional ecstasy, pseudo-documentary description and tropic virtuosity. He refers to the formal language of art (the foreground and background embodied by the skin and wounds of Christ); colour theory (the black, red, yellow and white Jesuses); food and cooking (the melting pot and the plum); and, by implication, racial types denominated by colour. They culminate in the shaft-like declension of memory and its precipitous downwards fall, which operates as both a spatial simile and an explanation of the point of origin for the reverie itself, set off as it was by synaptic flashpoints triggered during the artist’s descent into memorial association. What he saw through to here was the way down, and down.

'Mike's comedy was a rainbow coalition of joke-telling, remorseless irony, vaudeville, back-alley diatribe and nimble literary wit.'

John C. Welchman

Then again, few artists can flip from recto to verso with the seeming nonchalance and strident conviction that Mike brought to the living art of antithesis. Our last supper a few days before he died – in a local Mexican joint where we had ordered one-too-many margaritas and counted no calories every few weeks for a couple of decades – was torrents of sunshine meshed by frightening barbs of noir. As if emotion was a strobe. But Mike was one of our great humourists, even then. His comedy was a rainbow coalition of joke-telling, remorseless irony, vaudeville, back-alley diatribe and nimble, literary wit. It was mostly blue … and often black. A legatee of what Charles Baudelaire called the ‘satanic’ conditions of humour, Mike updated the terms and in recent work (the ‘Hermaphrodite Drawings’ seen at Gagosian, London, in 2010; and a series of portraits of teachers, mentors and friends from his Cal Arts days left in his studio) ran riot with the genre of caricature. So much in the lives he lived, witnessed and represented was beset by the structures of distortion and exaggeration that organize this way of seeing the world. But for Mike caricature was not just a set of formal deviations directed at the traits and foibles of various individuals, but rather an operating system that seemed already to have organized so many of the social relations he encountered. His caricature thus absorbed and recycled the already distorted orders of class formation, sexuality, religious belief, art-world elitism, American ‘identity’ and so on; and then distorted it again with his unstintingly focused combinations of satire and parody. The shifting conditions between caricature and these other effects offer one measure of the layeredness of Mike’s work, and a leading reason why it was sometimes seen only from one or another point of view within the several that it collided, and was in this sense occasionally misunderstood, or undervalued.

Mike Kelley, Petting Zoo, 2007, installation view at Skulptur Projekte Münster. Photograph: Polly Braden

Aside from gigs – which he loved – with the band Extended Organ (Paul McCarthy, Fredrik Nilsen, Joe Potts, Tom Recchion), doing improvised percussion, playing squeeze toys or keyboard, Mike performed only rarely during the last decade or so. But one of his most moving appearances was in the character of the Morose Ghoul in Day is Done, whose soliloquy – a cascade of whispery rasps intoned while stumbling around in the Arroyo Seco underneath the Colorado Street bridge in Pasadena – reprised a career-long obsession with bathos and dejection. Here Mike subjected diminuendo to a rhetorical hazing, the stakes of which drew it lower still. A bit of caricature, and a dose of truth; highly scripted yet saturated with improv; corny and portentous; but above all so synch it melded with its groove.

Ah . . . Death!

There goes Mike. Or one of the things he saw through, right to the end.

John C. Welchman: Writings on Mike Kelley

John C. Welchman began his collaboration with Mike Kelley in 1986 when he wrote about Monkey Island (1983) in the catalogue for the inaugural exhibition of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. He authored the survey text for Mike Kelley (Phaidon, 1999), and edited the three volumes of Kelley’s collected writings: Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism (MIT, 2003), Minor Histories: Statements: Conversations, Proposals (MIT, 2004), and Mike Kelley: Interviews, Conversations, Chit-Chat (JPR | Ringier, 2005); as well as On the Beyond: A Conversation between Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and John C. Welchman (Springer, 2011). Welchman’s writings on Kelley include ‘History and Time in the American Vernacular: Mike Kelley’s Work with Photography’, in Imaging History: Photography After the Fact, ed. Bruno Vandermeulen and Danny Veys (ASP, 2012); ‘Documents, Dreams and Fantasies: Passages Through the Involuntary from Photography to Sculpture in the Work of Mike Kelley’, in Involuntary Sculpture, ed. Julia Kelley and Anna Dezeuze (Ashgate, 2012); ‘Verborgene Qualitäten’ (Qualities Being Hidden) in Interviews: Oral History in Kunstwissenschaft und Kunst, ed. Dora Imhof and Sibylle Omlin (Verlag Silke Schreiber, 2009); ‘L’arte e le instituzione: Riempire (e cancellare) dei vuoti’ in Le funzioni del museo: Arte, museo, pubblico nella contemporaneità, ed. Stefano Chiodi (Le Lettere, 2009); ‘The Making of Acconci’ (with Cynthia Chris) Texte zur Kunst, September, 1999; ‘Mike Kelley as a Writer’, Texte zur Kunst, March 2003; and ‘Mike Kelley’ in Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers, ed. Jonathan Vickery and Diarmuid Costello (Berg, 2007). Welchman’s catalogue essays include ‘The Uncanny and Visual Culture’ (The Uncanny, curated by Mike Kelley, Tate Liverpool, 2004); ‘Fête Accompli’ (Mike Kelley, Day is Done, Gagosian, New York, 2006, Yale University Press, 2007); ‘Glossary’ (Mike Kelley, Sammlung Goetz, Munich, 2008–09), and ‘Mike Kelley and the Comedic’ (forthcoming, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). He has written on Kelley’s Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition ‘Catholic Tastes’ (Art & Text, April 1994); ‘Day is Done: The False, the Real, and the Memory in Mike Kelley’s Thirty-Two Stations’ for Flash Art (November–December, 2005); ‘1000 Words: Mike Kelley’ in Artforum (October 2005) and ‘The Writings of Mike Kelley’, for Reading Room (Wellington, New Zealand, forthcoming 2012). Published discussions between Welchman and Kelley include: ‘God, Family, Fun and Friends’ (Institutional Critique and After, ed. John C. Welchman, JRP | Ringier, 2006); and ‘Qualities Being Hidden: John C. Welchman Interviews Mike Kelley About Interviewing’, (Mike Kelley: Interviews, Conversations, Chit-Chat, JRP | Ringier, 2006).

Mike Kelley, Plato's Cave, 1985. Photograph: Sidney Felson

Monica Bonvicini

An artist living in Berlin, Germany.

I met Mike while working as a visiting professor at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, back in 1998. I had always considered him one of the best artists around and I was impressed to see that he was also a great teacher: very supportive and always positively critical of the students’ work. He would always have a book to suggest to them, books which mostly didn’t have anything to do with art. Art is something you do like nobody else did before – something larger than life – and that’s how he lived and worked.

Mike was also a loud, pain-in-the-ass guy, not afraid of fights and always wanting to win them. He was radically cheap when it came down to worldly things: who cares about them anyway? At the same time he was extremely generous with his art, his colleagues; also very loyal and sincere. He made a very good friend.

When I heard he took his life I got very angry at first and cursed him and his choice aloud. Then I got so sad I could not talk. I was in my studio, with a lot of work to be done. An old song by The Animals came up on the stereo: It’s my life and I do what I want … It helped. He did what he wanted. Always. He didn’t bother to say goodbye, but he finished in the same irreverent, outrageous and shocking way as he went along all his life, and with all his art.

Respect, Mike, respect: it was your life. (Dammit ...)

Mike Kelley, Pay for Your Pleasure, 1988

Emi Fontana

Director of West of Rome Public Art, based in Los Angeles, USA.

‘Day is done, gone the sun

From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky

All is well, safely rest’

‘Taps’ (Traditional US military song)

The first time I stumbled upon Mike Kelley’s work was in Berlin in 1991, in the show ‘Metropolis’ at Martin-Gropius-Bau, where he was showing Pay for Your Pleasure (1988). At the time, I had only been working in contemporary art for a few years. My training was as a classical Renaissance art historian, but my sentimental education, coming out of the underground, counter-cultural experience in Italy, made me approach the contemporary art world with caution. Seeing Mike’s and Cady Noland’s work in Berlin dissipated my doubts. It was with Pay for Your Pleasure that Mike turned me on for the first time. Two years later, I met him in person and we started a courtship dance that culminated with his exhibition ‘Extracurricular Activity, Projective Reconstruction #1 (Domestic Scene)’ at my gallery in Milan in 2000, when we started dating.

In 2001, Mike and I spent our first New Year’s Eve together, in Naples. New Year in Naples is rivalled only by Carnival in Rio for the intensity of the collective experience, the sharing of beauty, ritual madness, wild joy, sensuality and death. Mike was in his element; suddenly he started running toward the shore trying to chase fireworks. He was chasing beauty, I was chasing him, and the Italian cops were chasing us. The race ended in the water of the gulf of Naples. Our romantic relationship ended in 2008. We remained very close and continued to work together. Mike changed a lot in the last years of his life. He was paying for his success and it was coming at a very high price, especially for someone who had made failure his aesthetic.

'Mike was chasing beauty, I was chasing him, and the Italian cops were chasing us.'

Emi Fontana

Recently, walking back from his house, a thought struck me: for the first time since I knew him, Mike didn’t have any major projects that he was excited about. Ideas were orderly and silently filed in his archive. The night of 30 January, I dreamt of a monolith of solid beautiful light landing on South Pasadena, the quiet neighbourhood where we both live.

In his work, Mike was constantly rearranging chaos into orderly cosmologies. His ultimate gesture – dramatic, but carefully composed and orchestrated – left us with a sense of irreparable loss and emptiness, filled with a beautiful and eternal light.

Mike Kelley Ahh... Youth!, 199, 8 cibachrome photographs, each 61 x 51 cm

Ann Magnuson 

An actress, musician and performer based in Los Angeles, USA. She also makes visual art. Mostly in Joshua Tree.

Mike Kelley was one of the reasons I moved to LA from New York. He personified the ‘Helter Skelter’ coolness that informed the LA scene and became a friend and a collaborator. I sang with his Supersession improv band and several of those jams morphed into songs that found their way onto my first solo CD, The Luv Show (1995). I recently found the original demo tape of ‘Miss Pussy Pants’ and recall it was late the night we made it up and were about to stop when I said, ‘Naw, let’s do one more; a Janis Joplin-y fucked-up bar-room brawl kind of a song.’ Mike immediately screamed like a crazed trailer-park hillbilly banshee (Detroit-style), unleashed a throbbing maniacal beat on his drum kit and a gnarly, psychotic grind began. The song burst, fully formed, out of the womb of a demented Muse impregnated by a demon in what can only be described as a Robert Williams-inspired gang bang: pure garage-band, art-rock mayhem.

Mike and I later performed the song together at a SASSAS (Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound) event and somehow Mike ended up on all fours with me straddling a wild beast that knew no shame, only the ecstasy of the primal and the gloriously giddy fury of screaming your guts out while laughing hysterically.

Mike Kelley, Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #33, Plus, 2009. Performance at Judson Church, New York, as part of Performa 09. Photograph: Paula Court

John Miller

An artist and writer based in New York, USA, and Berlin, Germany.

Yesterday, I threw out my turntable. About two weeks earlier, I had replaced the stylus, only to discover that the belt drive was shot. The stylus had broken years before and it took me a while to follow up. That means if I’m a vinyl fetishist, I’m a lazy one. In any event, I still can’t bring myself to get rid of the 500-plus LPs I’ve accumulated since my teens. Where else would you find Bo Diddley’s The Black Gladiator (1970) or Charly McClain and Johnny Rodriguez’s ‘I Hate the Way I Love It?’ (1980). Certainly not on iTunes.

Toward the end of January, I received a package that contained a selection of CDs, a DVD and a catalogue. A lot of it was Jim Shaw’s free-form music. The DVD documented Mike Kelley’s 2009 Day is Done performance at the Judson Church, New York. The catalogue was Mike’s Exploded Fortress of Solitude, published by Gagosian Gallery last year. Except for the catalogue, this was everything Mike had put out over the last two years on his record label, Compound Annex. Later, I learned several other friends of his had received similar packages. Seen from the vantage point of Mike’s suicide, this may have been a way of taking care of loose ends. Apart from that, though, his gift had a melancholy aspect. The CDs seemed outdated: just husks. And they seemed to date me. Because I was so slow to get onboard with them, I really identified with Jackie Brown’s response to ‘the CD revolution’ in Quentin Tarantino’s eponymous 1997 film: ‘Oh, I got a few, but I can’t afford to start all over again …’

The Destroy All Monsters Collective (Mike Kelley, Cary Loren and Jim Shaw), Mall Culture, 200, acrylic on canvas, 2.4 x 3.5 m

Much of my friendship with Mike revolved around listening to music. When he first started showing in New York, he would stay in my seventh-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side. When I went out to LA, I stayed in his West Hollywood apartment. Mike had strong opinions about everything and never tired of analyzing and discussing all kinds of music in detail, from the Honeycombs to Harry Partch. One Saturday, after about six hours of playing records, I told him that sometimes listening to too much music can be depressing – like just eating cake all the time. We took a break, bowled a couple of games at the Ardmore Lanes right around the corner, then went back to the records.

My friendship with Mike more or less began when he invited me to play in his and Tony Oursler’s art-school band, The Poetics. I was in for about three of the band’s roughly six or seven phases. The Poetics revolved around songs that Mike and Tony wrote. It was a quasi-rock band with a performance art edge. In addition to guitar, bass and drums there was a theremin and a primitive synth dubbed ‘the Orgasmatron’. I played a Sears Silvertone guitar that Tony lent me. This was also my introduction to noise music. Mostly, we just rehearsed. Mike was a great natural drummer. I can’t imagine him ever practicing in the usual sense. The few times we played out, though, were disasters. When the Suburban Lawns invited us to play at their loft in Long Beach, the Chicano punk band, the Plugz, went first. They were fantastic. The whole crowd was rocking out. Then we came on. The loft had two rooms and the place was packed. By the end of our first song, everyone had crammed, hot and sweaty, into the other room. That is, everyone except one guy who kept a beat with a tambourine. After that, schlepping our equipment home at 3am seemed especially brutal. The memory of such forays into public performance served as a negative valence in Mike and Tony’s Poetics Project, featured in documenta X in 1997. Ironically, the Poetics Project concerned less music in-the-moment than it did the role of the archive and the construction of history.

'Anyone who has ever had an interest in art and culture without being "raised cultured" knew what Mike had done.'

Sterling Ruby

After Mike moved from West Hollywood to Eagle Rock, he started putting together a recording studio in a small adjoining house. This was prompted by a brief stint playing with Ann Magnuson in Supersession, but it lead to a long-term interest in recording and post-production. From time to time Mike would revive Destroy All Monsters, a Detroit band that he and Jim Shaw helped form. He also performed in various incarnations with Stephen Prina and Paul McCarthy.

Meanwhile, I had started playing with Jutta Koether – first as part of Karin Schneider’s 2006 installation, Sabotage, at SculptureCenter, New York. When I showed at Friedrich Petzel’s project space the following year, Jutta and I planned to perform there as an extra event. When I heard that Mike would be in town, I invited him to join us. He, in turn, suggested that we include Tony Conrad as well. This would be the last time we played together. It couldn’t have gone better, and it made me wonder why – especially considering The Poetics’ inability ever to connect with an audience. Of course, times had changed. Noise had become a kind of pop. But we were also taking part in a certain ritual; in part because people already wanted to like it, they did. You could say that expectation can function as an artistic medium. Whether it made sense to record this, whether what transpired even could have been recorded, is another question entirely. Sure, there are snippets that people shot with their newly purchased iPhones, but all that misses the point. Expectations can be elusive that way.

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin, 1987. Installation view, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles. Photograph: Douglas M. Parker

Dave Muller 

An artist, musician, occasional show organizer and DJ living in Los Angeles and West Glover, USA.

Summer of 1995 and my first week of working for Mike. On our way back from lunch, we were heading across his yard to the studio in the garage behind his house. I had the hiccups. No sooner had I stated this before: ‘Hurrrraaaggghhh!!!’ Mike was roaring in my face. It was as if the fourth wall, the fifth and sixth walls, and whatever else there was between us evaporated. His mind was so much faster that it took me a moment to realize this performance was his solution, to scare the hiccups out of me. It didn’t get rid of my hiccups, but it put me somewhere new.

Mike Kelley, Day Is Done, 2005. Installation view, Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photograph: Fredrik Nilsen

Sterling Ruby

An interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, USA.

I saw Mike a week and a half before he passed away. We made plans to go to Columbo’s in Eagle Rock, his favourite Italian restaurant in LA. I had been Mike’s teaching assistant at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, for close to three years, and this was the first time that I had ever heard him say that he didn’t know what to do. It made me uneasy. To be quite honest, I moved to LA because of Mike. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I saw Mike as the perfect bastard culmination of punk rock, blue-collar politics, craft appropriation and criminality. Anyone who has ever had an interest in art and culture without being ‘raised cultured’ knew what Mike had done. He used to challenge me constantly with his idea of the role of the artist as a criminal. I could never fully rise to his challenge, but maybe neither could he. I thought of Mike as a father figure. I already miss him.

John Reed, Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, Jim Shaw. Photograph: Cary Loren *this image was wrongly credited to Niagara, changed 4/4/12. We apologize to Cary Loren for the mistake.

Jim Shaw

An artist, father and noise-maker, who lives in Los Angeles, USA, with Marnie Weber, their daughter Colette, three dogs, and two cats.

I don’t know when I first realized that Mike was a genius (a word one shouldn’t use lightly) and, after his death, I’m still learning new aspects about him, such as the fact that he had a photographic memory. As I talk to other friends of his, I realize how much I didn’t know about him. For most of us, our relationships with him were compartmentalized. Although I’ve known him longer than most, our friendship dwindled after my daughter was born, as there emerges a gulf between those who have kids and those who don’t.

One thing I’ve realized is that his genius was in opposition to the standard art-world genius paradigm: the genius of simplicity, best exemplified in Warhol, but which was the standard before, with the Abstract Expressionists for example, and continues to be for most artists today. Mike’s was a genius of complexity, of messiness and oppositions. Mike was aware of his standing a long time before anyone else was and it rankled him to be lightly dismissed or ignored. He cleared a path for many of us, and opened up a lot of subjects for consideration. While we can regret not experiencing the works he left unfinished, and those that were in the germinal stage, and know he could have blown us away many more times, he had to relieve his pain somehow. The creative act can drain you if you give it your all, and that he couldn’t avoid – perfectionist to the end.

Mike Kelley and Michael Smith, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, 2009, production still. Photograph: Malcolm Stuart

Michael Smith

An artist living and working in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, USA.

I’m amazed and touched by how many people were affected by Mike Kelley’s death. Yet, why am I so surprised by this general outpouring of emotion? Mike was a force. He was a huge presence in my life. It’s still difficult to comprehend that I can’t call him up to ask his opinion about these few words I’ve written.

Over the years he helped me see the forest for the trees, walking with me through paths filled with art, music and Detroit. At kitchen tables, on couches and in neighbourhood bars, we shared shoptalk, lots of laughter, impatience for the rules governing the deep, dark woods and a mutual love and respect for one another.

A couple of years ago, after installing our Burning Man project, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, at SculptureCenter in New York, we were having a nightcap and talking about our collaboration. Feeling uncharacteristically sentimental, I turned to Mike and said that working with him brought us closer together. Mike in his distinctive Midwestern twang replied, ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous, nothing is different … we’ve always been close.’ Dammit Mike K., I’m gonna miss you.

Mike Kelley playing drums with Dolphin Explosion (Colette Weber Shaw and Ariel West), 2006. High Energy Constructs, Los Angeles. Photograph: Rebecca Tull

Marnie Weber

A Los Angeles-based artist and musician who works in a variety of media including collage, sculpture, performance, installation and film.

I feel very lucky and thankful to have had Mike Kelley in my life as a close friend and as someone who supported my work with enthusiasm and honesty. In my early days of performance, I could always count on him to be out in the front row, hooting and hollering. He’d shout out: ‘You’re killing me, oh God, you’re killing me!’ while others sat silently around him. Then he would bellow out a request for one of the more obscure songs off my album that I didn’t know how to play and I’d be startled and think to myself, ‘Wow, he actually listened to the music.’ But that was Mike: he listened and he looked and he saw what others couldn’t. He lived a painfully sensitive life and could be easily brought to tears or laughter at the drop of a hat. He’d throw back his head with his deep hearty laugh over something stupid and chuckle with no reservation. We’ve lived a few blocks from his house for about 18 years. Warm summer evenings we would walk down to his studio and jam and play music. It was a safe place where the burdens of the art world didn’t exist. Mike would forget himself in his drumming. He took his music as seriously as his art and was one of the few artists who intertwined the two seamlessly. He warned me early on of the ghettoization of performance art and encouraged me to make films to translate my stage work into more permanent work. He was one of the first artists I knew who considered costumes to be art, not historical documentation, and exhibited them alongside his drawings. I learned from Mike that there were no boundaries.

When my daughter and her friend (Colette Weber Shaw and Ariel West) started a band at around eight years old they called it Dolphin Explosion. Mike loved the name and said, ‘Do you think I could be the drummer?’ The look in his eyes was part fun (with his characteristic twinkle) but part worry. I said I’d ask them. I could tell this meant a lot to him, then I was worried. Thankfully, they shrugged their shoulders and said sure, like, ‘Why would that old guy want to be in our band, but whatever.’ When I told Mike they would let him join he looked really happy and asked, ‘When do we practice?’ He took it really seriously, instigating rehearsals, setting up the equipment in his studio, pounding away on drums, shouting out, ‘Chocolate, chocolate!’ on cue. He recorded an entire album with them and produced it himself with their artwork on the packaging. The first Dolphin Explosion show was in a gallery in Chinatown, LA. I’ll never forget the moment Mike walked through the door: he was wearing a long black dress, black curly wig and black hat, dressed as a witch. The girls were dressed as pirates. They wrote a song which they then dedicated to Mike called the Boogie Man: ‘The boogie man, he was a big fat boogie man. He sat on a dolphin and spoke on his slime phone, and he sang this song. The Boogie Man, he was a very good friend of mine.’