MOCA honors abstract works of late L.A. art legend Mike Kelley


Author: Natania Reed


Contemporary artist Mike Kelley has been one of the most significant and influential figures in the Los Angeles art scene since the late 1970s. “A Tribute to Mike Kelley,” an exhibition dedicated to the work and legacy of the artist, who died Feb. 1, is now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. The exhibition has 23 pieces by the featured artist, as well as several additional pieces by other artists that Kelley donated to the museum. The exhibition opened its doors on Feb. 18.

“Mike Kelley has had an immense influence on the art and artists of Los Angeles, and the community has been greatly enriched by his exhibitions and his work as an artist, musician, critic, curator, and art historian,” MOCA Chief Curator Paul Shimmel said in a statement. “Mike had a profound impact on the world’s perception of Los Angeles art and artists. He was an intellectual force of nature, a real catalyst for a whole generation of artists.”

Born in Detroit, Mich., Kelley moved to Los Angeles in 1978 where he studied and created art under master conceptual artists such as John Baldessari and Laurie Anderson. He focused primarily on visual art from drawing to sculpture to film, or a combination of all three. 

He is also known for working with crochet and fabric, collecting rag dolls from thrift stores and yard sales and utilizing them to create artistic statements about adolescence and memory. Sonic Youth’s 1992 album “Dirty” evinces Kelley’s influence on music, moreover, as the album features an image of one of these rag dolls as its cover art.

Though small in scale, Kelley’s exhibition at MOCA encompasses some of his greatest hits, embracing a diverse collection of his artistic work. Included is some of his most monumental work, particularly eight parts of his 1982-83 installation “Monkey Island,” a cosmological study represented by monkeys and insects which addresses adolescence and sexuality through the lens of animal development. 

“Shock,” (1982-83), featured at the exhibit, is part of Kelley’s “Monkey Island” collection and spans from the floor to the ceiling of the space. Four distinct panels comprise “Shock,” which features an intersection of handwritten text and drawings, made with acrylic and mercurochrome on paper. Inspired by a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo, this piece uses sexually-charged imagery, figures of animals and a piece of meat to grapple with themes of coming of age and sexuality.

Also featured at the exhibit, is Kelley’s “Silver Ball” (1994), a sculptural installation featuring, unsurprisingly, a silver ball created out of aluminum foil, foam, wood, and chicken wire. This multimedia structure is connected to boom boxes and emits a steady, consistent buzzing noise. In front of the formation lie three baskets with fake fruit.

In addition to Kelley’s own work, the exhibit features several pieces by different conceptual artists. Los Angeles artist William Leavitt’s “Interior with Cactus Painting and Spiral” (1994) is on display at the exhibition, a minimalist pastel-colored rendering of the interior of a house. Marnie Weber’s “Brown Bear” (2005), featured in the show, is a visionary piece featuring a life-sized mannequin of a bear wearing a bright red cape and pointed hat.

Assembled quickly after his sudden death in February, Mike Kelley’s MOCA tribute is appropriate and through the pieces it exhibits, accurately represents him as both an artist and an appreciator of art. 

The exhibition will be on display at the MOCA in downtown Los Angeles until April 2.

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