On 1 February, 2012, one day after artist Mike Kelley, aged 57, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his home, but before any obituaries had announced his passing, a used toy showed up in an abandoned driveway in northeast L.A.'s Highland Park neighborhood, a block from where Kelley lived and worked. With it, a lit candle. And on the white wall of this abandoned carport, someone had written: More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin. The next day, along with what would subsequently become almost 400 people, I became "friends" with the anonymous creator of this memorial site via a Facebook invite. Under the pseudonym Mor Lovehours, the creator posted a note asking all those who wished to help build this "altar of unabashed sentimentality," as he called it, to contribute "stuffed fabric toys, afghans, dried corn, and wax candles."
The reference, of course, is to Kelley's 1987 work of the same title. Part of the Whitney Museum's collection in New York City, the original More Love Hours is made of the same "mixed media" as the altar in Kelley's memory, which continues to grow daily with stuffed and quilted offerings brought by a steady influx of visitors. Like other works by the artist, Kelley's More Love Hours is a collection of thrift store items that the artist found and manipulated; that is to say, it is an artwork made of implied memories and imagined lives. It is made of the opaque and indirect connotations that come buried in the dust of second-hand objects.
Likewise, in the spontaneous recreation of this seminal work by this seminal artist, one finds suggestions and fuzzy fragments of Kelley's life, and of the lives he touched — if not personally, then through his artwork. The notes written on the walls of this no longer abandoned driveway, and in the cloth commemorative book left on its grounds, are both highly personal messages — "Thank you for…," "I'm sorry that…," "I remember when…" — and notably removed ("I never knew you, but…").
Some messages are signed by other significant and influential artists, others aren't signed at all. A pink "Destroy All Monsters" pterosaur hangs from a rope that runs across the carport, as a commemorative nod to the "anti-rock" band of that name, formed in 1973 by Kelley — then a University of Michigan art school student — with Jim Shaw, Niagara (Lynn Rovner), and Cary Loren. Other contributions to the memorial site include personally decorated stuffed toys, flyers from Kelley's shows, dry flowers, photographs, and what appears to be a zebra piñata. A silent obituary, the site picks up where words fail, and instead of saluting the exclamations of the artist's life (his professional highlights, for example), honors the ellipses that hold the high points together: the friendships, the solitary process of being an artist, the complex psychologies and strong visual cues that define Kelley's works.
Mike Kelley would not have wanted an official memorial service; that's what several of his friends and fellow artists tell me. So it is significant that this memorial — though an altar of "unabashed sentimentality" — is nevertheless raw, unfinished, totally unpredictable, at the mercy of those who contribute to it, as well as those who live around it. The recreation of More Love Hours is an act suggestive of vandalism and trespassing, at the same time that it is an act of grief, of love, and tribute —in its complexity, it becomes that much more powerful. After all, this memorial honors an artist who, through aspects of his multifaceted and intricate projects, was known to "bash" sentimentality. The last major exhibition by Kelley that I saw was in 2010, when his collaboration with artist Michael Smith, called A Voyage of Growth and Discovery, showed in Los Angeles. The sprawling and elaborate installation includes video in which Smith, dressed as Baby Ikki — a diapered, stubbled man-baby — wanders the grounds of the Burning Man festival. Wild and immersive, the piece dances with sharp satire and engaging criticism. More to the point, the original More Love Hours, while a poetic merger of material and intangible softness, nevertheless exposes the unsanitary reaches of the mind as well as of the attic full of boxes. Vulnerability creeps in the original work, just as does in its recreation.
Last Sunday, 12 February, the creator of the memorial site agreed to talk to me, under the condition of anonymity. With both of us standing between a green quilt and a patchwork of wax candles, "Mor," as I'll call him, tells me about the previous morning, when he cleared the site of beer bottles and a packed marijuana pipe. No doubt, they were left as an offering, Mor says, but he doesn't want the site to become a party space. On the other hand, he was deeply moved when, one evening, he came across a group of art school students sitting in the carport, having a serious discussion. I remark to Mor that, inevitably, in recreating an artwork, those mourning Mike Kelley have created a new one, with its own set of meanings and connotations. I go on to tell Mor that that makes him the anonymous curator. He disagrees. "I am the anonymous custodian," he says. "Nothing beyond that." Mor comes by every morning to clean the site and light the candles; every evening, he returns to blow the candles out. When he knows it's going to rain, he covers the driveway with a tarp. But one day, Mor says, when the time is right, he won't cover the site with a tarp, anymore. He'll let the elements do what they have to. Katya Tylevich