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R.I.P. Mike Kelley

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KELLEY MAIN-thumb-500xauto-39241.jpgPAPER was saddened to hear the news today that acclaimed L.A.-based conceptual artist Mike Kelley had passed away of apparent suicide. Known for a multi-medium style that included everything from punk performance art to stuffed animal sculptures, we dubbed Kelley "the quintessential L.A. artist" in this 2011 piece by Jesse Pearson. We've re-printed the Q&A between Kelley and Pearson below. Mike Kelley and his contributions to the art world will be greatly missed.

It's difficult to describe the output of any great artist in one breath, but in the case of Mike Kelley, it's virtually impossible. The conceptual art veteran's big, slippery oeuvre encompasses stuffed animal sculptures, noise music, comic book-style drawing, architectural models, expansive installations and an array of both loosely and meticulously staged video works. In his January 2011 show at L.A.'s Gagosian Gallery, Kelley interprets Superman's birth city of Kandor: illuminated resin-constructed, Moorish-looking landscapes in blown-glass bell jars attached to gas tanks pumping artificial atmosphere. These are accompanied by a life-sized Colonel Sanders unveiling a miniature Sigmund Freud in a box, and video scenes of gnomes circling a cell, and Arabian queens emasculating a male servant, and... yeah. Mike Kelley is a trip and a half.

He has been making art in Los Angeles since graduating from CalArts in 1978. Now, here's what we're wondering: Is Mike Kelley an L.A. artist, or is he an artist who lives in L.A.? And, setting that whole mess aside, what does he even think of L.A.? We dispatched writer Jesse Pearson to address this pressing issue.

JESSE PEARSON: Are you an L.A. artist?

MIKE KELLEY: I've never thought of myself that way. I didn't grow up here. I came out
from Detroit to go to graduate school. Coming up in the era that I did, I felt more a part of an international scene. My teachers were mostly conceptual artists. That wasn't a localized art form.

JP:
So does where you live figure into your work at all?

MK: I wouldn't say so. I'm nothing like Ed Ruscha, whose work is really about a kind of L.A. mindset. My work is more Middle American, or class-oriented in general. It's not specifically caught up in regionalisms.

JP:
What was your first impression of L.A.?

MK: Growing up in the Midwest, I thought of cities in terms of metropolises. The scale
of Los Angeles -- and the landscape and vegetation -- was not like anything I'd experienced before. When I first got here, I was going to school out in the desert.  A lot of people there weren't even going to L.A. But I was into the music scene, so I'd go to clubs. I started meeting local artists and I started to feel connected to it all. But  I also knew people in other places, and so I never felt like, "Oh, I'm an Angeleno."

JP:
You must feel like one by now.
 
MK: Well, I do feel particularly connected to the group of artists here that I've met over the years. I stayed here after grad school when that wasn't a very common thing to do. People would immediately go to New York.

JP:
Is there a particular part of town that you feel closest to?

MK: I think that I'm much more East Side-connected than West Side-connected. I lived in East Hollywood for many years. I left right before the explosion of the Silver Lake area, before the hipsterization. When I was there, it was primarily Armenians, Filipinos and Mexicans. There was a gay scene there, too.

JP:
Downtown is maybe the most intriguing part of L.A. The first time I saw Skid Row, I was totally astonished.
 
MK: It's horrible. It's what SoHo was like many years ago. Downtown has all of the street people because it's where the missions are, but then right next to that is this fake zone of culture -- MoCA, the Music Center, all of that. A lot of artists used to live downtown until the real estate prices went up in the '80s and they were all forced out. Now there's a little zone of hipster-ish restaurants and loft-dwellers right near the bus station.

JP:
Growing up on the East Coast, L.A. to me was surfers and 90210

MK: People from out of town, all they ever think about is the beach and Hollywood. But the reality is that Hollywood is a slummy area. It's a factory. Hollywood Boulevard is just a tourist street. People are very surprised when they see how crummy it is. And it's sleazy. All you have to do is read Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger.

JP:
Exactly.

MK: There's also this idea that Los Angeles is all sun and fun. But in many ways L.A. is
a giant slum that goes on forever and ever. Now, from the beach all the way to West
Hollywood, there are enormous pockets of wealth. It's hard to think of that much money in one place. But it's balanced off of abject poverty in the rest of the city.

JP:
What's an underappreciated aspect of L.A.?
 
MK: It's kind of an intellectual center. This is where the art schools are. It's where people come to learn about art. It has less of a business orientation in relation to art than New York does.

JP:
Do you have any instinct as to how your work might have developed differently if you'd stayed in New York?

MK: It's hard to say. I almost went to Yale. I'm so glad I didn't. It was so formal and caught up in these New York traditions of technique.

JP:
What do you predict for the next few years in L.A.?

MK: A lot of the city is immune to economic changes because the entertainment industry does well no matter what. I do see lip service being paid to trying to make the
city more comfortable for non-car users. I mean, Europeans come here and they're
shocked.

JP:
It's insane how much a city of L.A.'s size has to rely on cars.

MK: That's the saddest thing about this city. There are a lot of sad things about it, but that's the saddest.

 
Jesse Pearson is a New York-based writer. He is the former editor of Vice magazine. Before that, he was an editor at index magazine.

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