Elaborating on the significance of the stuffed animals, which he enlarged to such a scale that they become obscene creatures, Kelley commented: “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)
Beneath the soft naiveté of the stuffed animals lurks a deeper sense of alienation and psychological grit. Interested in the communication of fractured and fabricated narratives, much of Kelley’s assumed personal biography and childhood trauma is in fact invented by the artist—we are unable to disentangle the layers of factual and fictional psychosomatic 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 multifaceted 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.
In Pink and Gray, Kelley investigates the phenomena of caricature as a tactic for formalist critique. He thematically links caricature to the “soft” sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and Salvador Dali, which similarly operate under opposing forces of attraction and repulsion. Kelley goes further to claim that the condition of “soft” art is inherently feminine. As an elaboration of Kelley’s interest in caricature, Pink and Gray appropriates feminist strategy in its crafted and hand-sewn presentation of kitsch toys, working to complicate certain gender attributes traditionally ascribed with specific artistic practice. Amanda Cruz explains, “The very idea of a man sewing and manipulating old dolls to make art contradicts the heroic modernist image of the male artist using industrial materials to fabricate imposing sculptures.” (Amanda Cruz in Exh. Cat, Washington, D.C., Mike Kelley: Half a Man, 1991, n.p.) Indeed, the soft, hand-hewn quality of the present work is ultimately a cynical parody of the machismo or mechanical reduction that branded the movements of Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism. Seeped in these multiple levels of critique, the present work perfectly encapsulates Kelley’s persistent and astonishingly creative examination of self and society at large, meanwhile exposing the absurdities and sinister realities writhing beneath pervasive cultural value systems.
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