Starting in the late 1970s, Mike Kelley’s diverse multimedia art practice was at odds with essentialist and utopian ways of thinking, usually analyzing phenomena and behavior repressed by ideological systems. In his performances, music, and installations, Kelley took material from high school memories, adolescent collectibles, pulp magazines, psychoanalytic theory, and a multitude of other sources. Using what are often considered non-art materials, his work pays particular attention to contemporary art theory and practice, especially the dreams and failings of modernism.
Kelley’s Infinite Expansion, 1983, was completed in sections while the artist lived in a small studio apartment in Hollywood. The drawing starts with a small, nostalgic scene that expands into a hallucination that lingers somewhere between fluid, nondescript lines, wood grain, and bodily organs. Associated with underground punk rock posters from the late 1970s, the drawing also alludes to Kelley’s concern about the distortion of memories over time, an idea that has a direct impact on his later projects.
In many ways, Kelley arranged and interpreted cultural phenomena typically considered unworthy of study. For example, his famous stuffed animal works of the late 1980s and 90s brought the world of craft and gift items into the world of fine arts, using their soiled and lived-with qualities to examine the childhood object relations that are eventually sublimated by adults. The critical reception of the craft works, often in error, focused on Kelley’s personal biography. In response, Kelley began to use his own past and memories as a starting point for his work. In Educational Complex, 1995, he made models from memory of schools that he attended, including his Catholic elementary school and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The models, due to his altered memories, were left incomplete where Kelley could not recall the architecture, literally having holes in places where, according to the artist, some trauma may have occurred.
The return of trauma and its effect on memory is an idea continued in Gym Interior, 2005. The work is a subset of Kelley’s monumental New York exhibition Day is Done. Each of three installations starts from the collected high school yearbook images of strangers. Kelley created his own imaginative projection onto the photographs in the form of video, installation, and sculpture. The work both mines and reinvents the past, uncovering buried disappointments and humiliations through an immense number of historical reference points including Bible stories, Hindu ritualistic practices, swan cults, and Greek tragedy.