Skarstedt Gallery, New York
Private Collection, New York
Sotheby's, New York, 11 November 2015, Lot 2
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, The Other Side, May - July 2006
New York, Skarstedt Gallery, Mike Kelley: Memory Ware Flats, July - August 2007
New York, Skarstedt Gallery, Mike Kelley: Memory Ware Flats, September - October 2012
New York, Hauser & Wirth, Mike Kelley: Memory Ware, November - December 2016, p. 143, illustrated in colour
Initiated in 2000, Kelley’s Memory Ware project references the genre of Canadian folk art of the same name, where decorative items such as beads, buttons, shells, and pieces of costume jewelry cover common household objects coated with a claylike plaster. Seeking to revitalise and personalise cast-off objects and discarded materials by assembling sentimental keepsakes, the tradition of memory ware invokes a distinctly kitsch nostalgia. In his densely layered and deeply alluring Memory Ware Flat #29 from 2001, Kelley adopts this practice and reinterprets it through his own twisted vernacular to reflect his interest in biography and memory as communicated through references to varied historical art movements. Mining such materials for their pure pictorial potential, Kelley evades the saccharine by subverting the emotional value of memory that people invest in inanimate objects and cheap kitsch keepsakes.
To construct his Memory Ware paintings, Kelley filled rectangular-shaped wooden frames with a coloured tile grout in which he scattered an accumulation of materials. Intricately encrusted in a dispersed array of brightly coloured, garishly 'low' culture items such as pins, timepieces, and sparkling plastic beads, Memory Ware Flat #29 produces an intensely psychedelic, swirling effect in the exhilarating topography of its dense relief. The present work's notable concentration of antique political campaign buttons and wristwatches emphasises its preoccupation with time – histories past and lives lived. At varying shapes, scales, and concentrations, Kelley’s clusters avoid compositional focus and instead opt for a dynamic all-over mosaic-like surface.
Beneath the glimmer and sheen of the painting’s surface lurks a deeper sense of alienation and psychological grit. Interested in the communication of fractured and fabricated narratives, much of Kelley’s own memory, assumed biography and childhood trauma is in fact invented by the artist – we are unable to disentangle the layers of factual and fictional psychological anxieties that imbue the work with immeasurable complexity. Growing up in Detroit, Kelley was fascinated by the many dissident and alternative subcultures lurking in Middle America. The artist was both a participant and a commentator in the cultural conventions and constructions that he navigated through his labyrinthine body of artwork. A member of several punk bands throughout his youth, Kelley brought this interest in subversion with him to graduate school at CalArts in 1978, where he absorbed the school’s dogmatic focus on Conceptual art and theory under the guidance of teachers like John Baldessari, Laurie Anderson and Douglas Huebler.
The late Mike Kelley was a radical shape-shifting maverick, an art-world anarchist who has found international acclaim over the past quarter-century for his riotously eclectic, stinging inquiries into class, psychological trauma and popular culture in Middle America. Persistently revelling in between the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, Kelley’s diverse body of work powerfully interrogates perceptions of value.
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