Kelley was born in Wayne, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, to a working class Roman Catholic family in October 1954. Kelley often employed soft, tangled toys as a satirical metaphor for Expressionist art. In 1995, he produced Educational Complex, an architectural model of the institutions in which he had studied, including his Catholic elementary school and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Wages for multimedia artists was in the band Poetics with fellow California Institute of the Arts students John Miller and Tony Oursler.
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In November 2005, Kelley staged Day is Done, filling Gagosian Gallery with funhouse-like multimedia installations, including automated furniture, as well as films of dream-like ceremonies inspired by high school year book photos of pageants, sports matches and theater productions. Kandor, on the planet Krypton from which the child Kal-El escaped to Earth, where he became Superman. In 2009 Kelley collaborated with longtime friend and fellow artist Michael Smith on “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery”, a six-channel video and sculptural installation piece. This piece was conceived in 2007 and curated by Emi Fontana, produced by Kelley himself and West of Rome Public Art. The artist’s last performance video was Vice Anglais from 2011.
Kelley lived and worked in various places in Los Angeles, among them the Farley Building in Eagle Rock. In 2012, Kelley was found dead of an apparent suicide in South Pasadena. Kelley began having regular one-man exhibitions at Metro Pictures Gallery in Manhattan in 1982, and at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles the following year. He subsequently started to gain recognition outside Los Angeles in the mid-eighties with the sculptural objects and installations from the series Half-a-Man.
In 2012, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit received a grant to complete Kelley’s unfinished project Mobile Homestead, a large-scale replica of the artist’s home in suburban Detroit. The Watermill Center staged an award-winning exhibition of Kelley’s video and sound installations, as well as works from the “Kandor” series in 2012. The Exhibition, “Mike Kelley: 1954-2012,” was voted “Best show in a non-profit gallery or alternative space” in 2012 by the International Association of Art Critics. On October 13, 2013, the largest exhibition of Kelley’s works opened in the MoMA PS1 in New York City. The exhibition titled, “Mike Kelley” included over 200 of his pieces from the 1970s until his death in 2012. This was the biggest exhibition of any kind that MoMA had organized since 1976.