Mike Kelley was “arguably” the most important L.A. artist of his generation, “arguably” the one who changed the world's perception of Los Angeles, even “arguably” the most important contemporary artist according to obituaries and remembrances published yesterday, after news of the 57-year-old artist's death, reportedly by suicide.
A subdued version of that argument — over how much exactly Kelley mattered and why — was playing out last night near 11 p.m. at the top of Tipton Way. There, in an abandoned driveway blocks from Kelley's home in Highland Park, artists had begun to construct an unofficial, makeshift memorial.
“He was one of the main reasons I moved to L.A.,” said painter Greta Svalberg. “He was a rebel, and he was famous.”
“For me too,” said artist Dani Tull, who lives nearby and knew Kelley well. “After graduate school, it was either New York or L.A.” Tull, who finished school in the early 1990s, had written down names of all the artists working here that interested him: Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon, Paul McCarthy. “This list of mavericks and freaks had an allure that seemed exotic,” compared to New York.
“It's the opposite of timely for this to happen now,” said another artist who'd just arrived, “with Spirit Resurrection” — Pacific Standard Time's restaging of a 1980 performance festival Kelley helped organize — “having just finished.”
When Kelley first began exhibiting right after the period Pacific Standard Time chronicles (which ends in 1980), the irreverent, inventive sincerity of his work felt entirely different from anything happening on the East Coast, and felt like proof that pop-infused L.A. sprawl could be a rich stomping ground. “Mike Kelley not moving to New York, that significantly changed the situation,” wrote Bruce Hainley in 2006, theorizing about the L.A. art scene's staying power.
The Tipton Way memorial doesn't feel like it's for the artists who were Kelley's peers or mentors — and there are plenty of them active in L.A., since Kelley emerged from CalArts in its 1970s heyday — as much as for those who came to L.A.'s art scene because he was part of it. Initiated by an anonymous group (called “Mor Lovehours” on Facebook), it “started” at 3 p.m. Wednesday, around four hours after confirmation of the artist's death.
It replicates More Love Hours and Wages of Sin, two paired installations Kelley exhibited in the Whitney's 1989 Biennial. The first, More Love Hours, was a large, hanging wall piece packed with handmade animals, dolls and afghans found at thrift stores. The second was a pile of melted wax, “like the kind of sculpture a teenager would make in their pot-smoking room,” Kelley said, “some pseudo-ritualistic kind of thing.” The idea is to keep burning candles on the concrete and building up the wall along the driveway, until it's as dense as Kelley's original piece. As of last night, there were a few afghans hanging along the far white wall and a growing group of stuffed animals on the ground.
In the mid-1980s, when Kelley started using stuffed animals in his sculptures and installations, he thought he was commenting on commodity culture. But viewers interpreted it as about child abuse and, often, about Kelley's own abuse. That seemed too rich a misinterpretation to ignore. From that point, he decided to make all his work about his own abuse, “and about everybody's abuse,” he said in a 2005 interview. “This is the assumption: that all motivation is based on some repressed trauma.”
More Love Hours, an accumulation of slaved-over, handmade gifts, was about a kind of trauma, too, or the potential for it. “If you saw these things as representing love, then it was a massive amount of love,” he explained in 2010. “If you saw the things as being inducers of guilt or repayment, then it was more than you could ever pay back.”
The memorial is an effort to pay back as much as possible to Kelley, and acknowledge there's too much to pay — which means it's a gesture of homage and frustration over the death of an artist no one wanted to remember in this way right now.
When I left a little after 11 p.m. Wednesday, a former assistant of Kelley's had arrived with a candy skull, a python skin and a few other relics to build an altar. No one else was there, and candles were burning tamely and most inside votive glass. But someone else must have arrived soon after, because a picture posted online around midnight shows a mass of wax and color that looks much more like Kelley's original oozing, psychedelic Wages of Sin.
The memorial continues indefinitely, certainly through the weekend, and anyone is welcome to come to the top of Tipton Way, off Figueroa, to add to it.