By 1991, Mike Kelley had emerged as a crucial artist in Los Angeles, at the head of a pack that had pushed into prominence in the previous decade.
His riveting sculptures reassembled from ratty stuffed animals, crocheted dolls and other tattered children's playthings that he scavenged from thrift shops were also generating considerable critical attention far beyond the city.
Then 36, Kelley was invited to participate in the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh, one of the oldest and most respected surveys of its kind. Carnegie guest curators Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis were born in Australia and Britain, respectively — one sign of an international resonance at the core of Kelley's art.
At the end of the month the narrative comes full circle, when the full career retrospective organized by Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum — and already seen there, in Paris and in New York — arrives at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
It will be the second in a museum here for Kelley, who died in 2012. "Catholic Tastes," his 1993 midcareer show, was seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
There is something deeply, profoundly American about Kelley's work, which might not be surprising. The artist came from a blue-collar family in suburban Detroit, a crucible of American industry that was already showing the strains that would send the city into its present dire tailspin.
Following college in Michigan and then art school at Cal Arts, where he graduated in 1978, Kelley chose to set up his studio not in New York but in L.A., perhaps the first world city largely manufactured from images. Kelley's work, deeply informed by the complex cultural crosscurrents of the 20th century's second half, reflected an ethos that was nothing if not cosmopolitan.
For the Carnegie, Kelley proposed a kind of summing up. His room-size installation titled "Craft Morphology Flow Chart" put under a microscope the stuffed animals and scavenged toys that had become his trademark.
Few artists want to get tagged, or trapped, within a single style, subject or material. He's often been characterized as a leading figure in so-called abject art — work that plumbs the depths of mortification and abasement, made by artists as diverse as Paul McCarthy, Annette Messager, John Miller and Tony Oursler. Although Kelley had made a diverse array of work throughout the 1980s — drawings, altered photographs, performances, paintings, banners, installations and more — he had become closely identified with the stuffed animal sculptures.
The Ur object was the extraordinary wall-hanging "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid" (1987), which smashed together scores of colorfully tacky, homemade plush toys and knitted afghan blankets into a weird and witty craft-class version of an Abstract Expressionist painting. First shown at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, then on La Cienega Boulevard, then in New York at Metro Pictures, it was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art — Kelley's first major museum purchase.
Abstract Expressionism, the so-called triumph of American art that unfolded in the 1950s during Kelley's otherwise oblivious Midwestern childhood, had never looked quite like this. "More Love Hours" didn't smell of oil paint and linseed oil but grubby toddlers and spilled strained peas. The artist later wrote that each of the assembled yarn dolls was a "pseudo-child; cutified, sexless beings that represent the adult's perfect model of a child — a neutered pet."
These tattered, gendered talismans of familial love were made as homey gifts for long-gone kids, now salvaged from cast-off piles in ordinary thrift stores. That said something distinctive about cultural ideals, aspirations and passages. At the work's upper corners, Kelley tacked two clumps of dried Indian corn to the wall like Thanksgiving quotation marks — sentimentality unhinged.
On the floor in front of it, a pedestal table is mounded with half-melted candles in the shapes of trippy mushrooms, religious icons, wise owls and more. The ensemble is a wretched Baroque altarpiece, like a hippie church-offering of pedestrian enlightenment.
Kelley's family was Irish Catholic, and his work is filled with secular spins on church icons and ephemera. The "Craft Morphology Flow Chart" for Pittsburgh also went to church, but this time to the parish meeting hall. Card tables are arrayed as if for Sunday night bingo or the holiday craft fair.
As the biological term "morphology" implies, he overlaid the religious institution with a secular one, making his presentation like something from a natural history museum or science fair.