There's another LA-based Mike Kelley who's been quietly working in the shadows of his tragic same-name counterpart.
In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.
Not to be confused with the late, great installation artist Mike Kelley, designer, illustrator, and occasional curator Mike Kelley couldn't be more different from the Kelley who tragically committed suicide nearly five years ago. For one, the late Kelley's work is a chaotic yet orderly outward manifestation of his psyche. The fine-art work of the living Mike Kelley, in turn, is clean, dreamlike, and undoubtedly contained within the confines of the frame.
Kelley attended ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, and while working as a graphic designer, opened the erstwhile Junc Gallery Silverlake, which was dedicated to exhibiting the fine-art side of illustration. After operating for six years, the gallery closed in 2010.
Kelley describes himself as a designer and illustrator with a "fairly ordinary corporate job." Nevertheless, he still finds time to imbue ethereal watercolors with an otherworldly sense of wonder and discovery. "I love how the natural process of the pigments mixing with water are permanently recorded," Kelley tells The Creators Project. "It's like geology in nature. It's an exact record of what you were thinking, and the process that was going on the moment it was created."
While making a living with his day job, Kelley still makes work that is more personal, and more defined by a distinctive aesthetic mirroring his own subconscious. He is motivated by "universal human rituals and natural processes that influence us," yet admits that if anyone compared his commercial work to his watercolors, "you would have no idea it's from the same person."
Originally from San Francisco, Kelley notes, "California is the place people have come to for decades because they wanted creative freedom. There is still combination of isolation to develop, and a creative community that you can connect to and get energy when you need it. Also, simply being creative here is a kind of currency: you can feel validated and encouraged here just for being creative."
Nowadays, instead of showing at galleries, Kelley shares his personal work on social media, or simply gives it to friends. A onetime gallery owner himself, Kelley has an informed view on LA's gallery culture. "My perspective of galleries probably comes more from the fact that I owned a small gallery, worked at a 'big' gallery briefly, and still curate and organize shows," he says. "It's pretty much the same, in my opinion, except there might be a bit of an incentive for a small gallery to take a risk and open up here, because it still might be a little cheaper than other places."
Additionally, LA has the added bonus of having a legacy of creative types who may or may not succeeded when here, but at least tried. "You can see and feel and sense the presence of everyone whose come here to be creative before you," Kelley says.
LA's spiritual environment continues to affect Kelley's art, even though he doesn't make any distinctions between his creative and spiritual outlooks, or his philosophy of life in general. Mostly, as he says, he just aims to "remember I am not my ego."