To construct his Memory Ware Flat paintings, Kelley filled rectangular-shaped wooden frames with a colored tile grout in which he scattered an accumulation of materials that he amassed in bulk from flea markets. Intricately encrusted in a dispersed array of brightly colored, seemingly "low" culture items such as pins, timepieces, and sparkling plastic beads, Memory Ware Flat #12 produces an intensely psychedelic, swirling effect in the exhilarating topography of its dense relief. At varying shapes, scales, and concentrations, Kelley’s clusters avoid compositional focus and instead opt for a dynamic, abstracted surface that alludes to certain art historical movements. From a distance, the all-over nature of the composition suggests a style straddling Pointillism and Abstract Expressionism—as if a hybrid of a Georges Seurat and Richard Pousette-Dart—however, upon closer inspection, one becomes engrossed by the individual micro elements and in turn focuses on the utterly kitsch nature of each of Kelley’s found objects.
The present work’s notable inclusion of plastic buttons and pins bearing platitudinal sayings (“If you don’t have your breasts examined, you should have your head examined” / “Between you and me you’re as special as can be”) emphasize the work’s deadpan evocation of cultural clichés and hackneyed social customs as seen in linguistic habits. Furthermore, taking notice of the many destination-themed keepsakes scattered throughout the composition (“Western Pacific Feather River Route” / “Largemouth Bass”), the cultural preoccupation with low-brow souvenirs gathered from sightseeing or road trips emerges as a secondary theme in the present work. In mining these keepsakes and discarded memorabilia purely for their pictorial potential, Kelley thus subverts the emotional value of memory that people imbue in inanimate objects. Ultimately these objects function as a satirical critique exploiting the saccharine underpinnings of nostalgia and the banality of culture.
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 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 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.
Since his death in 2012, Kelley’s influential body of work has been widely reevaluated and revisited for its lasting impact on Conceptual art. Memory Ware Flat #12, notable for its phenomenal visual magnetism and perfect encapsulation of Kelley’s primary themes amidst the artist’s heterogeneous cache of diverse forms, is a profoundly moving and visually enchanting paradigm of Kelley at his most raw and immediate self. The present work asserts Kelley’s genius as a radical shape-shifting maverick and art-world anarchist who 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 reveling in between the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, Kelley’s Memory Ware works powerfully interrogate perceptions of value and are thus considered one of the most significant series of the artist’s prolific career.
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