Banners on buses and along streets show artist Mike Kelley's awkwardly vulnerable, youthful face alongside portraits of worn, handmade stuffed animals. These advertisements for MOCA's current Kelley survey compel people who already know to love Mike. They reveal his interest in sentimentality's strangeness. “The street-lamp banner is killing me,” an artist friend tells me, because she hadn't yet made it to the show, open only three days at that point.

But what should the banners mean to you if you don't know Kelley's work? And what will you find if you go looking to understand it?

When you walk into the museum's Geffen Contemporary space, every inch of it filled with Kelley's work, you encounter a maze of sets and videos — depicting a nativity, vampires on a school campus, a devil in a barbershop — in the cavernous central room. But it may be best to bypass all this at first and take an immediate right, past the gift shop, into the annex.

There you'll find Black Out, a colorful, folksy, room-sized work that's a good starting point because it tells a relatively clear, though certainly still complicated, story about what Kelley was up to. It consists of low-to-the-ground planks covered in shards of stone, glass or ceramic. These planks lead up to a towering figure, also shard-covered, and holding some sort of helmet. The figure is supposed to be astronaut John Glenn, and it's an enlarged replica of a sculpture that stood on the grounds of Kelley's Detroit area high school. The shards covering it come from a 1920s dump Kelley found during a boat trip to small islands on the Detroit River.

He went to the islands in 2001 on a fantasy search for the Land O'Lakes Girl, the longhaired, Disney-worthy Native American who appears on butter boxes. She holds a package of butter, with the same picture of her holding a package of butter on it, in front of her chest, “like a censor bar,” Kelley noted. As a schoolkid, he and other boys discovered the trick others had discovered before them: If you fold the packaging in the right way, so that the girl's knees appear right below her shoulders, the knees look like bare, nipple-less breasts and the Indian maiden is flashing you.

At MOCA, around the corner from the John Glenn proxy, there's a super-saturated, seductive photo of a model dressed as the Land O'Lakes Girl in late-afternoon sun, almost blending into the red, green and yellow brush around her. Kelley tried to explain the connection between the two works, describing the girl as “a hallucinogenic, butter-colored vision — a romantic image of the pre-industrial landscape that was once Detroit,” and Detroit native John Glenn as her male counterpart. These different commercial and commemorative icons for him operated together to shape his experience of the place he'd come from.

Kelley, who came to L.A. in 1976 to get his MFA at CalArts and stayed until his January 2012 death, was always trying to explain himself. “Bullshit,” he said of artists who thought saying why they made what they made might ruin the experience. “And also,” he added, “it doesn't preclude people from liking it for the wrong reasons.”

This Kelley survey was organized by Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, where it opened in 2012 before traveling to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and on to New York's PS1 Contemporary.

When planning began, Kelley was still living, and his jarring suicide has changed the way the show has been read and talked about. Guardian critic Adrian Searle wrote that what had been planned as a “midcareer survey show” had become “a retrospective” and ArtInfo's Ben Davis worried about the “magnetism in tragedy.”

While most seemed to agree that the show looked smashingly good, the discussion has remained insider-y, as art-involved people try to grapple with how to care now that Kelley's gone.

In L.A., where, if you work with or around art, you probably know someone Kelley employed, studied with or lived next to, the urge to stay insular might be even stronger. But the way the show looks at the Geffen, not as segmented as at PS1, with more work than any previous instance but still more than enough room for the work to breath, it screams for that conversation to open up.

The work Kelley started doing with stuffed animals at the end of the '80s also appears in the annex, on the end opposite Black Out. In 1990's Arenas series, cute stuffed animals are set up as players in twisted tableaux — a leopard lies prone over a mysterious leopard-print hump, and dogs line up nose-to-butt on an afghan. More Love Hours Then Can Ever Be Repaid (1987) combines handmade stuffed animals and other craft objects in a dense, patterned, bulging tapestry of abandoned labors of love.

Throughout most of his career, Kelley told a story about this work, the truth of which matters less than that he kept telling it. He talked about how he had been interested in craft objects as cultural currency (if you make a stuffed animal for a child, what do you want in return?). But so many people assumed these works to be about child abuse — maybe even abuse he had suffered — that he went searching for abuse in his own history, his story goes.

Mostly, he focused on the institutions he'd passed through as potential culprits. For his Educational Complex (1995), he constructed all-white architectural models of schools he attended, based only on memory. The parts he couldn't remember he left blank, the suggestion being he may have repressed whatever happened there. It's a funny project — looking for trauma because you've been told your behavior proves you have some lurking in your past — executed with serious precision.

These models are in the show, as are the Day Is Done projects, the sets and videos filling that main central space. In making these, Kelley would look through high school yearbooks and find odd, ambiguous-looking images of student activities, and then let his imagination go from there.

One of the best at the Geffen is the Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #9 (Farm Girl), based on a black-and-white photo Kelley found of a girl in rolled-up overalls, checked shirt and straw hat with plants and a roof behind her. Kelley's studio — by this point, in the 2000s, he had a staff of assistants — rebuilt the set, a little bit larger, but otherwise the same, except in his version the plants talk to each other in stage whispers about Lady Bird Johnson. A performer, Tricia Ridgway, dresses like the girl in the photo and sings a self-searching power ballad that might have resulted from a Kim Gordon/Sinead O'Connor mind-meld. You see her on a large screen on rollers next to the set, and it's sometimes her whole figure dancing or a close-up of her country-girl face, with freckles painted on, aggressively grinning. The installation replicates pieces of so many familiar cultural activities — school plays, talent shows, hard-core, bare-all alt-music scenes, mainstream music videos.

In each room of the exhibition, you find different forms replicated with every intention of getting it right: documentary photography, formal portrait painting, album art, little girl's furniture, a porn shoot, confessional videos, the faux-Chinese courtyard from L.A.'s Chinatown, Superman's kryptonite world. And because this is done so skillfully, you know Kelley thought hard about these forms before presenting them to you, which makes grappling with the works' meaning feel worthwhile.

MIKE KELLEY | The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N Central Ave, Little Tokyo | Through July 28 |

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