John Waters' Tribute Speech for Mike Kelley

February 13, 2012

Mike is one of the most influential and defining artists of his generation and his impact on the practices of younger artists around the globe is immeasurable.

In 2007, the Hammer honored Mike at our annual Gala in the Garden. John Waters, who was a dear friend to Mike, delivered the tribute to him. We asked John if we could reprint his remarkable speech as a remembrance. We will all miss Mike very much.

-Ann Philbin

Hammer Gala | October 14, 2007

John Waters & Mike Kelley, 2007. Photo: Stefanie Keenan.

I live with Mike Kelley. Yes, the man who made pitiful seem sexy, the man who turned grimy thrift shop stuffed animals into heartbreaking, jaw-dropping beauty by placing them on stained blankets on the floor of art museums. The man who may have even inspired a whole new underground sexual fetish—that of the “plushie,” people who are sexually attracted to partners when they dress up as stuffed animals. Yes, I live with the man who much later and with just as much daring created a depraved blue-collar Satanic Dollywood-type theme park movie extravaganza entitled “Day Is Done.” From “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” and Warhol’s 24-hour movie “Four Stars,” Mike’s “BerlinKelleyplatz” as I call it, was the perfect and logicalcontinuation and fulfillment of this great thrill ride multimedia artistic experience.

Yes, I live with Mike Kelley, the ultimate bad boy who knows sex will always be better if you were raised Catholic because it will always be dirty and funny. A man who gave new meaning to “extracurricular activities” from high school yearbooks. A man who may recognize the gleeful rage I felt when I asked my high school teacher to sign my yearbook in the mid-sixties. The yearbook with not one extracurricular activity listed next to my name. The teacher wrote, “to someone who can but doesn’t.” Mike, a man who doesn’t but can, might find humor in my recent predicament when clergy at my Catholic high school were accused of long ago sexual abuse. When the victims group called me for their support 40 years later I had to give them the good but confusing news that these Christian brothers hadn’t touched me so I couldn’t help their cause. Was I having a recurring memory when I wondered later if I should feel bad because even the child molester teachers had rejected me!

Mike Kelley is a man who recognizes true heroes. He’s a man who knows John Sinclair’s name alone in a painting is the proper canonization of a saint of a different sort. Yes, I live with Mike Kelley, the man who gave repression a good name in many rooms of both my homes.

Even in my Baltimore bedroom. Right across from the bed is a Kelley painting of Satanic-like graffiti with the words “Thay You Love Thatan” scrawled elegantly and scarily. A Satanist with a lisp. Thay it! A Satanist doomed to failure. Thay you love Thatan. I’m a single man who occasionally gets to sleep with new people and I always make my partners say “Thay You Love Thatan,” before hopping in the sack and I thank Mike Kelley for helping me get lucky through artistic humor.

In my New York apartment hangs Mike’s “Dirty Mirror” which is a painting of a mirror with disgusting leftover cocaine type leavings smeared uglily across it. What a terrible night it suggests, reckless misleading moments of chemical joy that seem so sour an hour later. Sort of like the drawing of a Catholic soul we had to study in grade school—all white but dotted with venial sins like measles on a Robert Wyman painting.

But of course mortal sins were worse. The ultimate offense against God when the soul became all black like Mike’s 1995 “Wedged Lump” which hangs in my dining room and suggests a giant turd with comic strip “stink” marks. An art work where if someone comments “kind of shitty” it’s a compliment. Where my dinner guests are forced to confront the fate of their meal no matter how gourmet the initial presentation appeared.

I live with Mike Kelley in my work space, too. Right above my writing desk in New York is one of his “Garbage Drawings” —isolated refuse with everything else but the garbage eliminated from the original Sad Sack cartoons. Fumes of filth that I hope inspire my screenplays and fetid books.

Even my library is defaced by Mike Kelley. Hanging there is one of the hilarious 1989 “Reconstructed History” vandalisms—a real history text book that Mike defaced with glee, the same thing all of us who were bored in high school wanted to do in reaction to teachers who didn’t challenge us or discouraged our rabid interests. Our boredom turned to anger and then to rage and if we were lucky, then to art. “Barf” adds Mike to the patriotic “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” illustration and now, on the 4th of July, I can finally feel patriotic thanks to Mike Kelley’s troublemaking defiant reinvention of this school book.

Even my assistants live with Mike Kelley. In their office hangs the “Auditions” street sign he created for Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 2004. Mocking the hastily done cardboard signs casting agents put up in the halls of hotels to lead actors to try-out for roles, Mike celebrates the sadness of Hollywood, the despair of a failed career, the missed opportunities and the ever present clicheÅL of the casting couch. “You bought that?” my father asked incredulously when he saw “Child Substitute,” the pitiful collage Mike did that looks like a five-year-old retarded boy began cutting out pictures of animals from Sunday newspaper ads but lost his train of thought and abandoned the project. “Yes,” I told my Dad proudly, “I sure did!” “They saw you coming boy,” he said shaking his head as he focused in on the crudely cut out and lumpily glued-on pets, framed in the cheapest way possible. Here was the perfect bait for those who have contempt before investigation about contemporary art. I love how mad Mike’s work makes some people. Isn’t that the job of contemporary art? To infuriate? The nay-sayers of contemporary art who can’t see Mike’s brilliance here should be outraged because, yes, they secretly know this contemporary art DOES hate them and they deserve it!

Somebody ELSE lives with the one Mike Kelley piece I desperately wanted and missed out on. Entitled “Storehouse,” it may be the most shocking and amazing of all Mike’s sculpture and I blinked and somebody else beat me to it and bought it. It’s nothing but a cat food shipping box filled with soiled, packed-up cat toys, with two unframed found Hallmark-type greeting cards hung above from a vet showing sympathy for the death of your cat. This mundane still life of sadness and private mortification makes me feel like spontaneously combusting every time I see it reproduced and NOW somebody else owns it and I fantasize breaking into the museum or collector’s home and stealing it!

Isn’t Mike really a magician? Isn’t someone who can make you see something supposedly shameful in a beautiful, hilarious, radical, subversive way really a miracle worker? Even a good Catholic? Art + Auction magazine called Mike an “Apocalyptic Vulgarian.” I call him a terrorist and a healer. Thay it! Go ahead. Thay you love Mike Kelly. I thor do!

Reproduced with the permission of John Waters.