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Column - "An irresistible force in contemporary art" Mike Kelley, artist, musician & Sonic Youth collaborator remembered

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Post-modern artist Mike Kelley, who committed suicide last Tuesday (7 February) at his Los Angeles home – had a special resonance with many alternative-thinking indie-rockers, artists and disaffected youths throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

According to fellow LA artist John P Hogan, Kelley‘s often dark and twisted installations – famously filling art spaces with bizarre videos, teddies and burnt-out camper vans – represented a contemporaneous working-class American folk culture that was not represented elsewhere. Such was the magnetism of Kelley‘s high-concept surrealist work that he attracted, among others, indie-rock royalty Sonic Youth, who used his work on their aforementioned 1992 album Dirty.

The album artwork featured crusty teddies and a mug-shot of the acned, long-haired Kelley himself, which, combined with the drug-addled, atonal music, represented the soft/hard dynamics of a dysfunctional family. The comforts of childhood, the messy disaster of adolescence, the conflicted consciousness of the suburban weirdo, all brought

together in a sweet, sickly stew attests.

Alongside his major exhibitions, which included a life-size re-creation of his childhood home on wheels, a tiny rendition of Superman‘s birthplace encased in a glass jug and spherical sculptures made of stuffed animals, Kelley, born in Detroit in 1954, was also a musician.

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He was a founding member of proto-punk band Destroy All Monsters, a heavy influence on Thurston Moore‘s band, whose gigs Lester Bangs once described as being so extreme they approached performance. In 1994, Thurston Moore‘s Ecstatic Peace label released a three-disc collection of Destroy All Monster‘s guerilla-style music, which incorporated modified instruments, a drum box, tape loops, hot-wired toys and cheap keyboards to conjure an experimental, psychedelic droning sound.

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Kelley quit the band in the summer of 1978 and went on to pursue his love of art at the California Institute Of The Artswhere he founded another band, The Poetics, and developed his fierily intelligent, challenging style. Indeed, Kelley blended the boundaries between art, music and social commentary.

In the wake of his death, residents of Kelley‘s neighbourhood Highland Park, erected a memorial to the passed artist, which was filled with stuffed animals, toys and swathes of messages that referenced his work and lyrics of Destroy All Monsters.

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“Mike was an irresistible force in contemporary art,” the Gagosian Gallery, Kelley‘s studio, said in a statement issued to the Los Angeles Times. “We cannot believe he is gone. But we know his legacy will continue to touch and challenge anyone who crosses its path. We will miss him. We will keep him with us.”

Jamie Skey@jamie_skey


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