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Mike Kelley's riveting adolescent stage

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By 1991, Mike Kelley had emerged as a crucial artist in Los Angeles, at the head of a pack that had pushed into prominence in the previous decade.

His riveting sculptures reassembled from ratty stuffed animals, crocheted dolls and other tattered children's playthings that he scavenged from thrift shops were also generating considerable critical attention far beyond the city.

Then 36, Kelley was invited to participate in the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh, one of the oldest and most respected surveys of its kind. Carnegie guest curators Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis were born in Australia and Britain, respectively — one sign of an international resonance at the core of Kelley's art.

At the end of the month the narrative comes full circle, when the full career retrospective organized by Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum — and already seen there, in Paris and in New York — arrives at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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It will be the second in a museum here for Kelley, who died in 2012. "Catholic Tastes," his 1993 midcareer show, was seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

There is something deeply, profoundly American about Kelley's work, which might not be surprising. The artist came from a blue-collar family in suburban Detroit, a crucible of American industry that was already showing the strains that would send the city into its present dire tailspin.

Following college in Michigan and then art school at Cal Arts, where he graduated in 1978, Kelley chose to set up his studio not in New York but in L.A., perhaps the first world city largely manufactured from images. Kelley's work, deeply informed by the complex cultural crosscurrents of the 20th century's second half, reflected an ethos that was nothing if not cosmopolitan.

For the Carnegie, Kelley proposed a kind of summing up. His room-size installation titled "Craft Morphology Flow Chart" put under a microscope the stuffed animals and scavenged toys that had become his trademark.

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Few artists want to get tagged, or trapped, within a single style, subject or material. He's often been characterized as a leading figure in so-called abject art — work that plumbs the depths of mortification and abasement, made by artists as diverse as Paul McCarthy, Annette Messager, John Miller and Tony Oursler. Although Kelley had made a diverse array of work throughout the 1980s — drawings, altered photographs, performances, paintings, banners, installations and more — he had become closely identified with the stuffed animal sculptures.

The Ur object was the extraordinary wall-hanging "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid" (1987), which smashed together scores of colorfully tacky, homemade plush toys and knitted afghan blankets into a weird and witty craft-class version of an Abstract Expressionist painting. First shown at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, then on La Cienega Boulevard, then in New York at Metro Pictures, it was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art — Kelley's first major museum purchase.

Abstract Expressionism, the so-called triumph of American art that unfolded in the 1950s during Kelley's otherwise oblivious Midwestern childhood, had never looked quite like this. "More Love Hours" didn't smell of oil paint and linseed oil but grubby toddlers and spilled strained peas. The artist later wrote that each of the assembled yarn dolls was a "pseudo-child; cutified, sexless beings that represent the adult's perfect model of a child — a neutered pet."

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These tattered, gendered talismans of familial love were made as homey gifts for long-gone kids, now salvaged from cast-off piles in ordinary thrift stores. That said something distinctive about cultural ideals, aspirations and passages. At the work's upper corners, Kelley tacked two clumps of dried Indian corn to the wall like Thanksgiving quotation marks — sentimentality unhinged.

On the floor in front of it, a pedestal table is mounded with half-melted candles in the shapes of trippy mushrooms, religious icons, wise owls and more. The ensemble is a wretched Baroque altarpiece, like a hippie church-offering of pedestrian enlightenment.

Secular notes

Kelley's family was Irish Catholic, and his work is filled with secular spins on church icons and ephemera. The "Craft Morphology Flow Chart" for Pittsburgh also went to church, but this time to the parish meeting hall. Card tables are arrayed as if for Sunday night bingo or the holiday craft fair.

As the biological term "morphology" implies, he overlaid the religious institution with a secular one, making his presentation like something from a natural history museum or science fair.

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On 32 utility tables 114 handmade dolls are grouped according to type or materials — sock monkeys, decorated Styrofoam puppets, yarn animals and more. Sober black-and-white photographs show each doll laid out next to a ruler to measure its length, as if an anthropological specimen or corpse. A large, clinical painting in black acrylic on white paper leaning against a wall further subjects the children's toys to a pastiche of scientific analysis.

A smaller, edited version of the work is at the UCLA Hammer Museum in the group exhibition "Take It or Leave It." Many individual components are funny, but they ooze unconventional pathos. Shrouded in scientific dispassion, the installation is so eccentrically strange that a common response ricochets wildly between laughter (at the often pathetic objects — gross!) and sorrow (at their deeply personal familiarity — I had one like that). Black humor covers a gnawing sense of irretrievable loss.

What's missing, the loss, is something fundamental. Yet it isn't only the unpaid familial love for which his art's signature stuffed animals are emblems. The deep hole can instead be characterized in a single word: adolescence.

That odd, yawning chasm is the core of Kelley's singular significance as an artist. Two sides of life are visible in the work he made during a three-decade career. One is childhood, a not-so-innocent time represented by toys. The other is maturity, the world of adult responsibilities and sobriety embodied in any serious art.

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Between them is the invisible, feral swamp of adolescence — "a time of storm and stress" in the words of J.J. Arnett, the noted Fulbright Scholar specializing in adolescent psychology. Artists throughout the 20th century have camped out on one or the other shore of the great divide.

"Every child is an artist," Picasso famously said. "The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

Kelley's art locates the problem squarely in the quagmire in between. He dives headlong into the stormy, stressful danger zone. The peril is plain from the word's common use, hurled as a deathly term of disapproval: juvenile, immature, puerile — the synonyms for "adolescent" demonstrate how the cultural territory is studded with land mines.

But it's evident everywhere in Kelley's art. Occasionally it falters, but mostly he gave the experience dignity while registering its horror.

On the simplest level, as early as the late 1970s he did performances incorporating raucous elements of teenage garage-band rock 'n' roll. It was born of his youthful participation in "Destroy All Monsters," an anarchic noise-band whose disastrous Michigan debut took place at a comic-book convention.

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"Confusion," a 1982 performance, is more nuanced, its title a fitting description. The central image is a frog, an unattractive creature who lives between two worlds. It's a potent sign for awkward metamorphosis.

Adorning the stage set, one large painting on paper mounted behind green Plexiglas is a twist on Goya's gruesome painting "Saturn Devouring One of His Sons" (1821-23). The inspirational subject is the quintessential myth of a powerful adult — a god — so terrified of being overthrown by his offspring that he cannibalizes the children in bloody chunks.

The sinister original, painted during an awful era of civil strife in Spain, decorated Goya's dining room. Kelley's version changed Saturn's gangly legs into those of a splayed frog, an amphibious absurdity that underscores a transitional, intermediate stage. Adolescence is the discomfited pivot between the death of childhood and the madness of adults, poles that drove Goya's example.

In 1989 Kelley "Reconstructed History." Like a bored teenager, he doodled on 61 photographs copied from a junior high school social studies textbook. Rather than merely crude — although the often scatological drawings are certainly that — the scratchy alterations in ballpoint pen were scarily incisive.

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Take Abraham Lincoln's famous presidential portrait, which got warts, sharp teeth and dark-rimmed eyes — plus a nasty swastika carved into his forehead. That grim facial emblem is a sign of the self-mutilation undertaken by Charles Manson, whose cry of "Helter Skelter" is today mostly forgotten for what it was: a madman's apocalyptic faith in a coming race war.

Kelley's aching subtitle for this reconstructed history: "With Malice Towards None; With Charity for All." The line is from Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered during the Civil War just weeks before his murder.

Adolescence is largely an invention of modern American life. Named by pioneering psychologist G. Stanley Hall, whose monumental 1904 book on the subject popularized the idea in the larger culture, it arose from fundamental shifts in post-Civil War society. Adolescence reflects the country's relative youth in the community of nations, as much as it does individual lives.

Where once children labored on farms alongside adults, booming industrialization was changing patterns of work. Mandatory public education in secondary school further separated the more immediate transition of child into adult that had been the norm for centuries. A space in life opened up, a gap where the sexually and emotionally charged passage from puberty to maturity hovered in a kind of limbo.

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Adolescence is modern life's black hole, a gravitational field so intense nothing can escape it. Today we call it youth culture. In a famous group of eight photographs that appeared on the cover of a 1992 album by the band Sonic Youth, Kelley paired mug shots of dirty stuffed animals with a self-portrait, where he posed himself as if for a high school yearbook picture.

Tellingly, Kelley grouped his stuffed-animal works — a few of which were made after the planned summary of "Craft Morphology Flow Chart" — into a series he titled "Half a Man."

A wide display

The retrospective coming to MOCA includes examples from throughout the artist's prolific and influential career. Among them are sculptures that derive from the architecture of every school he ever attended, reconfigured as if an ancient labyrinth where malevolent spirits lurk. Also included are excerpts from 2005's "Day Is Done," a powerful suite of 25 theatrical stage sets animated by video projections, which evolved from high school extracurricular activities.

The show culminates in an extensive series of sculptures, some accompanied by video projections of whirling dust storms, on the improbable subject of Kandor — capital city of the fictional planet Krypton, known to every adolescent boy as the lost home of Superman. The sleek, sci-fi sculptures feature fantastic resin models of futuristic cities, contained inside hyperbaric chambers.

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Optimistically these symbols of civilization are being artificially kept alive by infusions from giant canisters of oxygen, or maybe laughing gas. Unless of course they are shiny dead zones infused with Zyklon B. The Kandors are like beautiful, chaotic and soulless worlds imprisoned for our scrutiny inside Sylvia Plath's bell jar. The art gallery, museum or collector's living room that houses one stands as an icy Fortress of Solitude.

Kelley became an artist in the late 1970s, before the trade had become a high-stakes profession consumed with celebrity. Americans have never much liked art, and the art world then was a refuge on society's fringe — not an easy place but one to harbor those who failed to make the "appropriate" transition from childhood to adult. When Kelley died by his own hand two years ago at age 57, a close friend said he told her shortly before that if he were in high school now, he would never choose to be an artist.

If he hadn't, it would have been our profound loss.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

twitter @KnightLAT

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