Understanding Artist Mike Kelley: From Age 12 to 21
By Margaret Rand
I remember the day I first saw artist Mike Kelley’s stuffed animal installation in 2013. I was 12 years old and in the sixth grade. It was a chilly, yet sunny October day. I didn’t know who the artist was or what his exhibition would be, but I was happy to come along on the weekend outing to Long Island City. The exhibition was at the MoMa at P.S.1, featuring Kelley’s first comprehensive survey since 1993, and his largest exhibition to-date.
Kelley came to fame in the late 90s new wave Conceptual movement. He is best-known for his cloud-like sculptures, composed of thrifted craft materials, but works in a variety of media, ranging from sculpture and painting to video and installation. His artworks contemplate class divides, youth, high and low culture, and the embarrassing, repressed subject matters of society. His first retrospective at P.S.1 took place a year after his devastating suicide in 2012, leaving behind his intimate works for the world to digest and contemplate in his memory.
As soon as I walked into the gallery space at 12 years old, I was innocently thrilled to see the rainbow, cloud-like orbs of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling as I snapped pictures on my iPod Touch. Child-like wonder akin to my first visit to F.A.O Schwartz overtook me. I was so entranced by the colors and textures of the fluffy sculptures that I didn’t even notice the gallery’s pine-scented air or the gritty details of the squished-together animals. Almost ten years later, while researching the artwork for my senior art history seminar, my entire perception transformed.
At first glance, the installation, titled Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991/1999), appears airy and playful with the tails of purple dragons and pink bunny ears streaming out, similar to a mobile found above a baby’s crib. Upon closer inspection, the multi-colored stuffed objects are visibly muddied and well-used. Kelley visited various thrift stores and yard sales to collect these forgotten, well-loved stuffed toys for the installation.
Surrounding these conglomerates are ten shiny, geometric wall reliefs. They serve as vapor diffusers that dispense pine-scented air freshener into the gallery space at timed-minute intervals. Immediately, the contrast between the orbs of soft, dirty stuffed animals and the sleek, symmetrical air dispensers caught my eye. When I first visited the installation, I didn’t pay much attention to the wall sculptures or bother learning the meaning behind them. Now, revisiting the artwork as a young adult, I understand the artist’s intentional contrast to create an unsettling atmosphere that masks the lingering scents associated with these used objects.
By integrating discarded plush toys, Kelley taps into the forgotten memories and emotions tied to these stuffed animals. In a child’s early years, these objects can serve as pseudo-parents—a source of deep comfort and their first encounters with attachment and longing. Whether it is a hand-knitted toy from a grandparent or a favorite birthday gift, these loved objects become corporeal, lasting remnants of the past.
By repurposing such intimate, yet easily recognizable objects, Kelley challenges one’s consciousness and stirs regression, a return to an earlier developmental stage to cope with stress or trauma. He turned to the sacred, childhood love objects that were rejected, reconstructing them into a body of work that would pierce the consciousness of adults with the same irrational pain or delight of a young child.
Revisiting this artwork at almost 22 years old, my own memories of listening to my dad tell me stories at bedtime or my mom tucking me in with my favorite bear re-enter my mind.
Alongside these comforting memories is the haunting past of my childhood tied to the difficult acceptance of becoming an adult. From my in-between state, as neither a child nor a fully independent adult, the intrinsic comfort of my youth remains a large part of my identity.
Ironically, my mother always joked when I was little that I was “8 going on 18” or “12 going on 22.” I always looked forward to being older and felt caught between my true age and the allure of what I thought being a teenager or young adult was.
Today, as a senior in college, I grip onto my childhood as it leaves me behind in the dust. The supposed excitement of the years I am living now and about to live aren’t as lavish and thrilling as I suspected them to be. While many viewers who see Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites are bombarded with childhood memories, I am caught in a flood of existential questions.
What would my younger self think of me now? How will I look back at this phase in my life? What will the next year look like, nonetheless the next five? In our youth, we constantly look beyond into the future and all that it may hold, yet when the future finally comes, we struggle to embrace the present in front of us. As the distance from my youth widens and the unknown, foreboding future comes closer, I struggle to find peace in this phase in my life and try to be grateful for this moment that was once an illustrious future.
While different perspectives are crucial to understanding Kelley’s work, one constant remains the same – his powerful use of plush toys to create tangible manifestations of repressed memories and emotions.
Margaret Rand is a senior in the College, studying Art History and Journalism. She’s the Indy’s Spotlight Editor and arts columnist, native New Yorker and proud cat mommy.