The six-part drawing Infinite Expansion is associated with one of Kelley’s most important early performances, The Sublime. In 1984, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Kelley read aloud a National Geographic article about Borneo, detailing the discovery of the world’s largest flower on the island. Countering Kelley’s words, dancer Ed Gierke and actor Mary Woronov delivered a series of gestures and insults, seemingly railing against the mystification and wonder conjured by National Geographic.
As the performance’s title suggests, at issue in The Sublime is the feeling of a terrifying or an awestruck emotion created by an encounter with greatness of incalculable scale, whether offered by human achievements or the natural landscape. For Kelley, as he related in an art21 interview, these feelings are not transcendent, instead they are rooted in the body and are capable of being generated in a number of (not necessarily “great”) ways:
I’m interested in a less elevated beauty. For me, psychedelia was sublime because in psychedelia, your worldview fell apart. That was a sublime revelation, that was my youth, and that was my notion of beauty. And that was a kind of cataclysmic sublime. It was very interiorized, it wasn’t about a metaphysical outside, it was about your own consciousness.
Infinite Expansion debuted at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in an exhibition of material and artworks related to The Sublime. At the center of the giant work is a small drawing of a house set in the vastness of nature. The composition references the romantic tradition in which the sublime, achieved through nature, was considered among the most important goals and purposes of art. In Kelley’s hands, the house and mountains are presented at a humble rather than heroic scale, and a hallucinatory burst of woodgrain and energy waves dominates the frame. Here, Kelley’s sublime is offered not by the transcendent, idealistic pursuit of romanticism, but by the aesthetics of a psychedelic poster, an expansion as achievable through mindset as through environment.
Mike Kelley was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1954. He grew up in a lower-middle-class family, attended a Catholic elementary school, and went on to study art at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Kelley’s work often sources his earliest experiences and memories—from the repeating image of his childhood home to the architectural layouts of the schools he attended. In college, Kelley formed the experimental noise band Destroy All Monsters, with Jim Shaw, Cary Loren, and Niagara. The band heavily influenced his art career, performing together, at irregular intervals, for decades.
In the mid-1970s, Kelley moved to Los Angeles. He studied at California Institute of the Arts, graduating in 1978. Kelley developed a wide-ranging practice marked by a promiscuous relationship to media and a voracious appetite for the vernacular side of American culture. Projects by the artist were often realized through a combination of performance, writing, drawing, sculpture, video, and music, all bent toward a conceptual purpose. Kelley pushed against ideologies based on traditional structures of morality. He mined behaviors repressed by these worldviews, using forbidden and profane thoughts and images in his work.
Kelley took inspiration from and sourced underground music, B-movies, comic books, pornography, pulp novels, toys, psychedelic art, and the work of artists outside of “official” art world narratives. He said, “my entrance into the art world was through the counter-culture, where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and ‘pervert’ it to reverse or alter its meaning…. Mass culture is scrutinized to discover what is hidden, repressed, within it.” Monumental, multifaceted projects often occupied the artist for years. Many of the works in The Broad collections are representative of some of Kelley’s most well-known projects.
After living, teaching, and working in Los Angeles for almost forty years, Kelley’s death by suicide in 2012 at the age of 57 was a devastating loss to the international arts community. He is considered one of the most influential artists in the history of the city.