Transfusing massive energy from one wild beast to another might kill them both. Artist Mike Kelley, who we learned passed away today, herded up all species of the inexplicable and nourished them with pieces of their own flesh. He was prolific in output and the mediums in which it was created, from the iconic noise collective Destroy All Monsters to his many, many shows at galleries and spaces into which he crammed the mutants, the outcasts, the marginalized, and all manner of creatures inhabiting psychological space we didn’t know existed.
His work was a hallucinatory collage that jumbled it all up so wildly, stripped away context of the known so that only connection and possibility existed in the ridiculous, gross, strange, surreal spectacle. His awe-inspiring imagery became a huge pile of wet mush that an observer was free to squeeze through the psyche’s fist into a drip castle, its structure solidifying only after the experience of having processed it.
It's difficult to know how to respond properly to shocking, psychically destructive events, such as a sudden death of someone who a friend today overheard at the farmer’s market describe as a pillar of Los Angeles’s art scene. On top of that, it's not a good feeling to write an obituary about a person who had a pretty heavy hand in creating the aesthetic universe in which you and tons of your friends and people you admire orbit just by nature of his work. There's no telling how many people Mike Kelley inspired to create art, and even with those kinds of bragging rights, he was known around town for being humble and approachable, no BS in a city that's famous for it.
I only got to see Mike Kelley once, at his last performance--in Extended Organ with Paul McCarthy, Fredrik Nilsen, Joe Potts, and Tom Recchion--for the Los Angeles Free Music Society presentation at the Getty in December. It was a night of improvised music from some of the golden oldies who made it possible for experimental music to even become a thing. While a lot of what came from the stage that night was whimsical and borderline silly, Extended Organ had a dark, low-slung ferocity that even in its bleakest moments still shimmered with a probing beauty that never let up.
Artist and musician Dani Tull, one of Mike Kelley’s friends who also performed with him, remembers him here:
"I first met Mike 20 years ago and got to know him better through my dear friends Jim Shaw and Marnie Weber. Jim had known Mike since they were art students together at the University of Michigan in the early/mid 70s. Their influential psychedelic noise rock band Destroy All Monsters had a big impact on me at a time when I really needed to be shaken out of the doldrums of the rock that I had grown up listening to. Destroy All Monsters also showed me that there was a place for art and music to blissfully entangle.
"Over the years, I have on occasion played music with Mike and fabricated for him as well. Among my favorite and less glamorous moments with Mike are when my wife and I met him for dinner at one of his favorite neighborhood restaurants, Colombo's Italian Steakhouse & Jazz Club. It was St. Patrick's Day, and the restaurant was in full swing. Mike showed up proudly wearing a kelly green suit with a green hat. He ordered the Irish corned beef and cabbage with a tall Guinness draft. Mike’s grin was fierce and it led me to believe that I knew very little about Irish pride. Another cherished time with Mike was when he played drums for the band Dolphin Explosion and opened for a Spirit Girls concert at a small gallery in Chinatown. The Spirit Girls was Marnie Weber’s ghost girl band that I played guitar for. The members of Dolphin explosion were Jim and Marnie’s young daughter and the young daughter of artist Jennifer West with Mike Kelley on the drums. Both girls were eight years old. With two little girls fronting the band, Mike pounded the drums. Again, he had that fierce grin, the source of which was pride, a shared pride, and he was in the moment."
There’s an anonymous, unofficial, and spontaneous Mike Kelley Memorial building an altar of unabashed sentimentality at the end of Tipton Way near Tipton Terrace off Figueroa St. Help recreate “MORE LOVE HOURS THAN CAN EVER BE REPAID AND THE WAGES OF SIN” (1987) by contributing stuffed fabric toys, afghans, dried corn, wax candles, etc.