One of the most prominent artists of his generation, Mike Kelley produced a vast range of works in drawing, sculpture, performance, music, video, photography and painting, as well as critical texts and collaborative works. He completed his studies at the University of Michigan and the California Institute of the Arts in 1976 and 1978 respectively. Kelley moved to the West Coast in the mid-1970s, and lived and worked in Los Angeles until his death in 2012.
Kelley gained recognition in the 1980s for his work with children's soft toys and other found materials. With these materials, he examined popular culture, memories and fragmented narratives. In Eviscerated Corpse (1989), he sewed together rag dolls and stuffed animals that he had salvaged from thrift shops to make a cross between a human and a centipede. The installation was part of the larger series 'Half A Man' (1987–93) and critiqued the association of innocence with childhood and the idea of family. More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (1987)—an earlier creation from the same series—similarly incorporated soft toys and second-hand blankets. Kelley's conspicuous use of sewing and craft—skills traditionally regarded as 'feminine'—questioned the definitions of normalcy and gender.
Children's toys also function in Kelley's work as a satirical metaphor. Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991–99) consists of suspended balls created from discarded, brightly coloured toys. By transforming children's toys into serious sculpture, Kelley visualised a darker side to the American dream's endorsement of excessive consumption and reckless luxury collecting, and intermingled the 'low' and the 'high' of American culture. He also deodorised his suspended sculptures, mocking America's selective amnesia of unpleasant realities.
The idea of memory was one of Kelley's longstanding interests. In 1983, he filmed a 28-minute video about The Banana Man—a character from the children's television show Captain Kangaroo. Since Kelley had not seen The Banana Man himself growing up, he asked his friends to share their memories for the reconstruction. In its incomplete study, far removed from the real character, The Banana Man offers an investigation into the fragility of human memory. In Educational Complex (1995), Kelley similarly reproduced the structures of every school he had attended, alongside his childhood home, as small architectural models. Blank spaces represented parts of buildings he could not remember. Kelley was intrigued by the increasing popularity of Repressed Memory Syndrome, which proposed that the human brain repressed traumatic memories and that therapy could recover them. The public grew interested in traumatic memories and child abuse, a phenomenon Kelley called an infatuation.
In 2010, Kelley collaborated with the London-based organisation Artangel to launch Mobile Homestead: a to-scale replica of his childhood home. Designed as a 'mobile home', the replica is constructed from lightweight white cardboard and has a removable clapboard façade. Kelley conceived of the project as a community gallery that would be driven around the streets of Detroit, serving the public with 'haircuts, social services, meeting space, and a place to hold barbecues and perhaps for the homeless to pick up mail', according to Randy Kennedy for The New York Times. Upon its completion, he recorded the house's launch in three videos that screened at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Since Kelley's death, Mobile Homestead has stayed with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and remains available for the community.
Outside his endeavours in visual media, Kelley also wrote and collaborated extensively. He has been published in journals including Artforum (2011, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2003, 1989), Journal of Contemporary Art (1994) and Art Issues (1990). He was an original member of Destroy All Monsters (1973–85), an experimental noise group founded with his friends Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and Niagara (Lynn Rovner). Kelley also collaborated with the band Sonic Youth in his performance Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile (1986) and with Paul McCarthy to produce Heidi (1992).
Kelley's work was and continues to be exhibited widely. Selected solo exhibition venues have included Gagosian Gallery, London (2011, 2007); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2013); MOCAD, Detroit (2013); and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1993). He also participated in multiple biennials, most notably the Whitney Biennial (2012, 2002, 1995, 1993, 1991, 1989, 1987, 1985), the Gwangju Biennale (2010), the Shanghai Biennale (2008), La Biennale de Lyon (2003, 2001), the 43rd Venice Biennale (1988) and the Sydney Biennale (1984).
After his death, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam opened a major retrospective of his works, titled MIKE KELLEY: Themes and Variations from 35 Years (2012–13). Other posthumous exhibitions include Mike Kelley at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2014) and An Homage to Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, New York (2012–13).
Kelley's works are in the collections of Art Institute of Chicago; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Detroit Institute of Arts; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York among others. Kelley was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2003 and in 1997 he won the Skowhegan Medal for Mixed Media.