“Right above my writing desk in New York is one of his Garbage Drawings (1988), isolated refuse from the original Sad Sack cartoons that feature fumes of filth that I hope will inspire my screenplays or book ideas”
Mike Kelley (1954 – c.2012) was an American artist born in Michigan and is notable for contributions to the Californian art scene and is a seminal figure and influence within American contemporary art.
Blending appropriation, formal abstraction, conceptualism and low or ‘trash’ culture simultaneously - Kelley helped develop and pioneer the bridging of critical perspectives on mass culture with an intimate knowledge and affection for kitsch to high-art institutions and galleries.
His series of Garbage Drawings were notably exhibited in Kelley’s 1993 mid-career retrospective “Catholic Tastes' ' at the Whitney Museum. For the series, Kelley removed isolated fragments of images of garbage piles from the American WWII comic series ‘Sad Sack’, to explicate their semiotic and formal meanings within a new pictorial space.
Kelley wrote of his Garbage drawings “When the garbage is isolated, it becomes specific and may even be seen as ordered, itself; thus formalized, it loses its transgressive nature. The abject signification of the drawings is also threatened by the addition to the series of an imposter: a bush that looks the same as the garbage.”
Raised in a working-class family, Kelley’s father was a maintenance worker and his mother a cook at the Ford Motor Company. The traces of Kelley’s blue-collar upbringing can be found in almost all of Kelley’s multi-disciplinary output; the Garbage Drawings being no exception to this. The works are simultaneously cartoonish and crass, showing fish heads, beer cans, and sludge hurling across the picture frame, while also displaying an elegant control of composition, line and negative space that recall the work of Franz Kline. When displayed within the sparse, clean walls of the white cube, the drawings function as a terse comment on the aestheticization of class and status of detritus as a redeemable image of value. Typical of Kelley, a punk attitude permeates the work’s relationship to the venerated space of the gallery.
"I didn't know it then but, like Pittsburgher Andy Warhol before him, Mike was a working-class Catholic kid raised in a dying Rust Belt city (Detroit). His personal history gave him a perspective very different from the routine middle-class world that spawns many artists. He made a point of acknowledging it on the catalog cover of his 1993 Whitney Museum retrospective -- pointedly titled "Catholic Tastes" -- which sports a photo of the artist wielding a bucket and mop and dressed as a janitor. Partly an homage to his father, who managed a public school maintenance crew, he assumes a heroic pose like a warrior with sword and shield, worthy of the Parthenon frieze."
Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times, 2012.