Ah…Youth presents a sequence of eight framed cibachrome prints arranged horizontally, a frieze of panels depicting Kelley’s collection of used stuffed animals found by the artist in a local thrift shop. The series of children’s toys is interrupted only by Kelley’s high school yearbook photo, an image that sees the artist as a grungy, pimpled adolescent—hair greased back and beige shirt buttoned to the collar, his expression vividly conveys the awkward angst of a troubled teenager. The portraits proceed from left to right like mug shots, Kelley and his toys arranged in a police lineup before the arresting glow of the camera’s flash. In this harsh focus and removed from their contextual bearings, the typically innocent, beloved toys are opened up to a range of subversive associations. As viewers, we see the crocheted animals in a radically new light compared to when we first encountered their warm companionship as children—juxtaposed against Kelley’s own immobile gaze, the toys appear at once demonic and pitiful, a menagerie of sinister creatures whose battered skins, missing features, and forlorn expressions merely reflect our own adult perversions and accumulated traumas.
According to Kelley, “The handmade objects I found in thrift stores were, most likely, not sold. I started hoarding them; I had never really looked at dolls or stuffed animals closely before. I became interested in their style—the proportions of them, their features. That’s when I realized that they were monstrosities. But people are not programmed to recognize that fact—they just see them as generically human. Such objects have signifiers of cuteness—big eyes, big heads, baby proportions. You can empathize with those aspects of them. But when I blew them up to human scale in paintings they were not so cute anymore; if you saw something like that walking down the street, you’d go in the other direction. I became interested in toys as sculpture. But it’s almost impossible to present them that way, because everybody experiences them symbolically. That’s what led to my interest in repressed memory syndrome and the fear of child abuse. This wasn’t my idea—I was informed by my viewers that this is what my works were about. I learn a lot from what my audience tells me about what I do.” (the artist quoted in Glenn O’Brien, “Mike Kelley,” Interview Magazine, December/January 2009)
Interested in the communication of fractured and fabricated narratives, much of Kelley’s 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 is 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 Cal Arts 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 present work achieved mainstream recognition when the American alternative rock band Sonic Youth used the image of the orange bug-like animal as the cover of their hit 1992 album Dirty, featuring the remainder of the work in the CD’s insert. Re-infiltrating the very underground punk culture that spawned him, Kelley’s work proved its iconographic resonance. Ah…Youth moved further away from kitschy adolescent nostalgia toward its powerful present evocation of rapt psychological unease.
Since his tragic death at the beginning of 2012, Kelley’s influential body of work has been widely re-evaluated and revisited for its lasting impact on Conceptual art. Ah…Youth, notable for its perfect encapsulation of Kelley’s primary themes amidst the artist’s heterogeneous cache of diverse forms, is a profoundly moving and visually stirring paradigm of Kelley at his most raw and immediate self.
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