Mike Kelley's artworks are notorious for featuring socially sensitive topics, as well as images of questionable taste. Kelley is interested in these topics and images because they exist within our society, and are part of it. By bringing them to the forefront he risks offending his viewers; however, Kelley's art is not simply based in its shock value. Rather, his art aims to inspire questions as well. If viewers of his work are shocked or disgusted?or not?Kelley hopes they will persevere to ask themselves why, and wonder what aspects of their social conditioning and personal experience have formed their morality and their "taste."
The Renaissance Society's exhibit consists of three bodies of work: Half A Man; From My Institution To Yours; and Pay For Your Pleasure. Half a Man addresses the predominantly effeminate traditions of art-making in the church and the home, and consists of felt banners, stuffed animals and afghan assemblages, and "decorated" dressers. The felt banners are similar in material and execution to those deployed by contemporary churches, but they differ in their conceptual and literal content, taking such foundational teachings as obedience, strength, and "love of self" to extremes not possible within the context of the church. Also in this body of work is a large, amusing, and pathetic "painting-esque" wall-hanging made up entirely of homemade dolls, stuffed animals, pillows, and afghans which Kelley has rescued from thrift stores and stitched onto canvas. In this wall-hanging--titled More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid--Kelley questions the value and lost-value of these various lovingly-made but discarded soft stuffed items. The age and attention paid to them are evidenced in their stains, their rips and tears, their missing eyes and buttons. Kelley wonders, here, whether all of the "love hours" that went into making these items have been sufficiently, contractually, "repaid." Hence he questions their original sincerity as "gifts" and exposes their hidden reciprocal obligations.
In From My Institution To Yours, Kelley has borrowed several of the authorless drawings (usually crudely drawn, and containing equaly crude or infantile jokes) which circulate as xeroxes and nearly totally permeate the loading docks, offices, and bulletin boards of our country. Kelley takes these drawings and exaggerates their source, attempting to make the drawings transcend their stupid humor and symbolize the voice, unity and common cause of workers across the country. But, while these drawings are evidence of a unifying thread, their poor content and bad taste undermine any potential or effectiveness. The working class's supposed desire for power is overwhelmed by its satisfaction with petty humor and crudity.
Pay For Your Pleasure is an installation conceived by Kelley specifically for The Renaissance Society and the city of Chicago which will address the legacy of John Wayne Gacy. This work will consist of forty banners, each four wide by nine feet high, painted in primary colors and containing portraits and quotes of great writers, artists, and thinkers from the Twelveth Century to the present. These quotes will act as a sort of chorus, or treatise, by these great men, all addressing the similarities and differences between criminal and creative activity. In the midst of this chorus will be a single painting by John Wayne Gacy, made while in prison. It is hoped that in this confrontation of our recognized creative geniuses and a recognized mass-murderer that the absurdity of Gacy being an artist--as well as his grossly unfortunate notoriety--will be revealed. With this, we, as members of this community, can ask which of our institutions and desires are responsible for confining Gacy as a criminal and yet freeing him as a celebrity.