Born 1954, Detroit, Michigan
Died 2012, Los Angeles, California
More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin is a 1987 work by Mike Kelley constructed from stuffed toys placed atop handmade afghan blankets. Four years later Kelley made a monumental installation using similar materials titled Craft Morphology Flow Chart (1991). It is the earlier work's title, however, specifically the notion of "love hours," that provides a crucial insight into the workings of the second piece. The bulk of Craft Morphology Flow Chart consists of 114 handmade dolls spread out across thirty-two tables. Each of these found dolls looks to have been carefully conceived and painstakingly executed by its maker. In other words, the number of so-called love hours that were poured into each of them is inestimable. Beholding these odd figures en masse, the resignation of Kelley's earlier title rings true. Payback is impossible: those who have had something made by hand for them—a gesture that is meant to represent love, kinship, comfort—will find themselves irrevocably indebted.
Arranged systematically as if within a crime scene or a morgue, the dolls lie on their backs, arms outstretched and palms (for those that have palms) upturned. Kelley makes clear in the list of materials that these dolls were purchased or found rather than newly created by him. In effect, they are cast-offs, surplus. No longer useful as secondary love objects, they now function as displaced entities available for study.1 Black-and-white photographs of some of these objects hang on adjacent walls. Staring out blankly, they are reminiscent of both mug shots and typological photographic projects like those of the German photographers August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Kelley arranged these figures in much the way that specimens would be ordered in a laboratory or displayed in a natural history museum, but the humble and tattered condition of the dolls renders this museological impulse—to collect, preserve, and proudly display—somewhat absurd. Nonetheless, by using this framework to organize these seemingly personal artifacts, Kelley makes clear that any such project, no matter how objective or comprehensive, is not only a catalog of physical objects but also a portrait of vested interests and mores—of a culture's methods of accounting for objects and systems, and of its attempts to map exchange or commodity value onto the seemingly irreducible.
Indeed, when a viewer experiences this work, it is the specificity—the distinct morphology—of each toy that is perhaps most striking. Even when there was clearly a typology in mind that Kelley used to group toys together (as with the table of sock monkeys), each object is markedly different from the next, lumpy and odd in its own particular way. From these aberrations—or unique virtues?—we can see both the limits of the makers' skill and their aesthetic and cultural biases. In other words, to an extent each doll functions as a representation of the maker's preconceptions—what each person thought love looked like in toy form. In Craft Morphology Flow Chart, as in many of Kelley's works, what may previously have seemed like a simple toy becomes a marker of social context and exchange. It is not that the sweetness of these objects is vacated altogether but that "love" in Kelley's treatment is not allowed to exist as a simple, altruistic emotion but is shown to carry its own economic and symbolic currency. The toys are stuffed, knotted systems of emotion, labor, ideology, and aesthetics.
For Kelley, it seems, institutional structures—and the psychologies they elicit—serve also as aesthetic models. In the Educational Complex project (1995–2008)—a multifaceted work that resulted in numerous and varied objects—Kelley sought to recall and represent the architecture of every school he had ever attended, labeling the parts he couldn't remember as "repressed spaces," in a nod to the theory that we often unwittingly blot out traumatic events. In the suite of drawings from his notebook, Notebook Drawings (Related to Educational Complex) (1994), Kelley offers up diagrams, notes, and explicit cartoons, punctuated by informal and occasionally off-color annotation. A sketch of a clown having sex with a donkey can be found on one page, while another charts the checkered dimensions of human life, cleaving together institutional, corporeal, symbolic, and subconscious experience. These drawings, like the dolls in Craft Morphology, amount to a complex, unblushing portrait of the interrelationship between system and subject.
The allusion to death also chimes with Kelley's earlier title, since "the wages of sin" is a fragment of a biblical verse, which reads in full: "the wages of sin is death."