In the hands of Mike Kelley, discarded pins, lost buttons, defunct keys, dropped coins, lost screws, and found bottle caps were never just junk. The prolific artist worked for over a decade creating "Memory Wares"—a series of sculptures and mosaics built from small pieces all centered around the concepts of thinking, remembering and forgetting. A large collection of Kelley's Wares, dating from 2000 to 2010, is now on display at Hauser & Wirth's Upper East Side gallery. Taking it all in is a bewildering, beautiful ride.
Working with the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Hauser & Wirth has arranged the Memory Wares on three floors, making it at least a little easier to find lines of continuity from piece to piece. The show's first rooms are dominated by flat pieces of framed grout rectangles covered with colorful bits that Kelley bought by the handful at thrift stores and swap meets. Some are cold and jagged, made up of only metallic pieces, while others are warm collages made out of plastic beads, necklaces, and even political pins.
These "flats," though, are a mess, and meant to be that way. Kelley saw memory as a stream of tiny particles—disjointed thoughts that only sometimes added up to clear images. For him, the passing of time only created chaos, with everything lost in life's abundance.
Detail of Kelley's "Memory Ware Flat #24" (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
All told, the show features 20 pieces, and each one contains so much madcap detail, so much stuff, that gallery visitors will want to allow themselves plenty of time to browse and think. One piece, “In Memory of Camelot,” is especially powerful. In it, a tiny figurine of JFK Jr., caught in mid-salute, stands atop a branch covered in tchotchkes. Next to it, a cheaply-jeweled urn sits beneath a bell jar, and behind both hangs a framed newspaper headline telling of his 1999 death. Viewed all at once, the piece washes two public tragedies, an assassination and a plane crash, in the constant flow of personal memory. It reveals the project as self-aware and reflective; Kelley thought carefully on how to make his unique vision resonate with the outside world. This is the kind of stuff that breaks your heart, if you let it.
Mike Kelley's "In Memory of Camelot" at Hauser & Wirth gallery (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
The complete set of Kelley's Memory Wares (only a fraction of the project fit into the gallery show) will be featured in an upcoming book published by Hauser & Wirth. You don't need an art degree, or even a familiarity with Kelley's vast catalog, to find beauty in these works. At first glance, the Memory Wares can seem like the frenetic pointillism of a maniac crafter, but Kelley is always emerging as more deliberate and lovely than he seems. You just need to be more patient.
Memory Ware is on display through December 23rd at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street in Manhattan; hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.)