Mike Kelley: The most important American artist you've never heard of


Nick Clark
Tuesday 28 August 2012 01:39

He is one of the most influential American artists of the past 30 years but is almost unknown in the UK.

Now the Tate is attempting to fill a gap in the British public's cultural knowledge with an exhibition devoted to punk-inspired artist Mike Kelley, in advance of the first anniversary of his suicide. Tate Modern is to display some of his video work in the Tanks, the new gallery space dedicated to live and performance art this weekend.

Stuart Comer, film curator at Tate Modern, said: "This is a tribute to him and it is about marking his importance and raising awareness of his work. He was, without question, one of the defining artists of his generation."

While the exhibition focuses on his video installations, Kelley worked in many different mediums, and was known as a pioneer of a movement called "abject art", what ArtInfo described as "highlighting the irrational and the repulsive".

His works included complex sculptures and installations, paintings, photography and performance art and drew on influences from folk, comics and spiritualisms to pop psychology, punk and psychedelia.

Mr Comer said: "Amongst artists he was enormously influential. He was a dominant presence in Los Angeles during the 1990s. London is the only major city in the art world where he does not seem to have a major status."

While he has been shown in the UK, particularly at the ICA, "for whatever reason he has had a different status over here," Mr Comer added. His work may be familiar to Sonic Youth fans as he created the artwork for the 1992 album Dirty.

Mr Kelley grew up in Detroit, and was heavily involved in the punk scene, forming Destroy All Monsters in the early 1970s. He left the band to study at the California Institute of the Arts. He came to prominence in the US with shows at the Whitney and LACMA and his reputation grew throughout the 1990s and after the turn of the century.

Paul Schimmel, the former chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, told the Los Angeles Times: "LA would not have become a great international capital of contemporary art without Mike Kelley."

Kelley was found dead at his home in Los Angeles in February this year, at the age of 57. Mr Comer said: "His death took everybody by surprise and it affected people heavily. There was an incredible memorial by his studio. I haven't experienced that level of grief in the art world for some time."

Mike Kelley: Portrait of the artist

Artwork for Sonic Youth album Dirty

Kelley was an old friend of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, and his knitted creatures featured on the cover of the band's 1992 album.

More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid

The 1987 wall hanging, with stuffed toys and blankets on a canvas, became a signature work.

Reversible Cross

Kelley's sculpture installation of a double-sided felt cross, was created in 1989

Exploded Fortress of Solitude

The 2011 piece, inspired by Superman comics, was part of the Kandors series started in 1999, with small-scale depictions of the superhero's birthplace Kandor.

The Banana Man

The video work, part of the Tate's tribute, saw Kelley pose as the character of a kids' TV show he had never seen. This came the same year as Monkey Island.

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