6 Unsettling Artworks by Mike Kelley

In Mike Kelley’s unsettling art, themes like Repressed Memory Syndrome, trauma, and violence are combined with popular culture, plush toys, and more.

Oct 1, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

mike kelley unsettling artworks


The American artist Mike Kelley was born in 1954 in Detroit. He studied at the University of Michigan School of Art and at the California Institute of the Arts. His works range from performance to installation art. He was also a member of the band Destroy All Monsters. His art was influenced by the idea of repressed memory, social rituals, and popular culture. Many of Kelley’s pieces have an unsettling effect. Here are six examples of his work.


Mike Kelley’s Stuffed Animals: Eviscerated Corpse

mike kelley eviscerated corpse
Eviscerated Corpse by Mike Kelley, 1989, via Art Institute Chicago


Mike Kelley is known for using stuffed animals in his work. What most people would associate with childhood, innocence, and purity takes on a more sinister meaning in his work as the title of the specific piece Eviscerated Corpse suggests. When one is aware of the title, the figure that seems to be hanging from the wall looks like it has been disemboweled. The long line made of a pink snake attached to other plush objects would therefore represent the figure’s entrails. Themes like purity and innocence are mixed with the visceral image of the body’s insides and death. Mike Kelley described the stuffed animal as a pseudo-child, a cutified sexless being which represents the adult’s perfect model of a child – a neutered pet.


A lot of people thought that Kelley’s stuffed animal artworks had something to do with child abuse. He initially started doing them as a reaction to issues of commodity culture. Many viewers thought that the artist himself was abused as a child and that these works were a response to the experience. He started to integrate this assumption into his work in an effort to actively engage with the viewer.



ahh youth mike kelly stuffed animals
Ahh…Youth! by Mike Kelley, 1991, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Mike Kelley’s Ahh…Youth! is another work that features stuffed animals. The creepy and somewhat worn-out plush toys appear next to a yearbook photo of the artist himself. In his work, Kelley depicts something he calls black nostalgia which he compared to dark humor. The title also seems humorous since it’s referencing an expression that someone would use while fondly remembering their youth, but the images show sinister-looking plush toys and an awkward photo of the artist when he was young.


Kelley also talked about how he never paid a lot of attention to the appearance of stuffed animals, but when he took a closer look, he felt that they were monstrosities. At first, Kelley wanted to explore the sculptural aspect of toys but since many viewers associated them with child abuse, he became interested in this topic instead. He also became interested in repressed memory syndrome. Another work about the topic of repressed memory syndrome is Educational Complex which consists of models of every school the artist went to. The parts he could no longer remember were left out.


Pay for Your Pleasure 

mike kelley pay for your pleasure
Pay for Your Pleasure by Mike Kelley, 1988, via MOCA, Los Angeles


Mike Kelley’s work Pay for Your Pleasure consists of 42 colorful banners of famous historical figures and artists like William Blake and Oscar Wilde. The images were made by a commercial artist and are all accompanied by a quote voiced by the person who is depicted. The quotes link art to crime. They refer to how art and artists have to be transgressive and disregard the law, or how their art should be seen independently of their crimes. Oscar Wilde’s banner for example says: The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose. The quote of André Breton, who was an essential member of the Surrealist movement, is even more extreme. It states that the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol on hand, and firing blindly…into the crowd.


When the viewers came to the end of the long hallway filled with banners at the first exhibition of Pay for Your Pleasure at the Renaissance Center at the University of Chicago in 1988, they saw a self-portrait of the murderer John Wayne Gacy that he made while he was on death row. Gacy, also known as the Killer Clown, murdered 33 people and depicted himself in his clown costume which he wore as a performer at parties. His image is exhibited next to quotes that suggest that artists should not adhere to the law. Kelley also included donation boxes so that visitors could donate money to organizations helping crime victims. As the title said, the viewer would have to pay for the pleasure of seeing the work of a murderer.


The Secret

The Secret by Mike Kelley, 1999, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Mike Kelley’s The Secret displays the contrasting themes of childhood, violent behavior, and sexuality next to each other. This mixture can also be found in some of his other works. The image in the middle shows a poster for a children’s movie from the famous franchise The Land Before Time. Steven Spielberg was one of the executive producers of the first movie of the franchise. In 1998, the movie titled The Land Before Time VI: The Secret of Saurus Rock which the poster in Kelley’s work advertises was released. During that year, there were several reports in the media about a man who stalked Spielberg. The director said that he had no doubt that the stalker would have raped or maimed or killed him.


Mike Kelley included the testimony of the stalker in this work. The image on the left shows the headline The Greatest Tragedy of President Clinton’s Administration. Here, Kelley referenced the scandal surrounding Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The arrangement can be described as a triptych since there are three images shown next to each other, which is a concept commonly found in altarpieces. Therefore, Mike Kelley’s The Secret seems to draw a connection between religion, crime, pop culture, and media.


Day is Done

mike kelley day is done
Installation view of Mike Kelley’s Day is Done, 2006, via Gagosian Gallery, New York


For his work titled Day is Done Mike Kelley intended to include 365 parts, one part for each day of the year. The included videos are inspired by performances or rituals common in the USA like Halloween celebrations or children’s nativity plays. He recreated images he found in high school yearbooks. Even though Kelley wasn’t interested in the topic of high school, the photos offered him an insight into rituals that didn’t seem to serve any function. He saw them as nonsensical escapes from institutional daily routine.


While Kelley associated sporting events with capitalism and propaganda, he felt that many of the activities he chose to recreate were ambiguous and had artsy, cultish, or sexually perverse overtones which he felt were incompatible with the regimented aspects of education found in most schools. Kelley exhibited the videos that often featured these ritualistic elements at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. The videos included musical numbers and dances. The installation was accompanied by sculptural elements made of props and set pieces used for making the videos.


mike kelley educational complex
Educational Complex Mike Kelley, 1995, via Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Day is Done is connected to Mike Kelley’s earlier work Educational Complex which consists of white models of every school the artist went to, as well as his childhood home. According to Kelley, the work was a reaction to the increasing societal interest in Repressed Memory Syndrome and child abuse. He left out the parts of buildings that he couldn’t remember. Kelley said that the videos he created were supposed to fill out the forgotten parts of his schools.


He called the videos false memories of trauma, which feature cultural and ritualistic imagery a lot of people can relate to. Kelley also talked about how Repressed Memory Syndrome is linked to the transformation of ordinary aspects of life into traumatizing experiences in literature. He said that he used this sentiment by recreating seemingly positive events while subtly perverting them.


A Copy of Mike Kelley’s Home: Mobile Homestead

mobile homestead mike kelley
Photo of Mobile Homestead by Mike Kelley, 2010, via MOCAD, Detroit


For his work Mobile Homestead, Mike Kelley replicated the home he grew up in located in a suburb of Detroit. Kelley’s father was a school janitor and his mother was a cook. His family was Roman Catholic. The artist initially wanted to buy his childhood home, but when the owner wouldn’t sell, he made a replica of it. Since part of the home could be moved on wheels, it traveled from its permanent location on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to the site of Mike Kelley’s original childhood home. The two houses can be seen in the photo above. While the ground floor of the replica serves as a gallery for the local community, the building’s underground is supposed to be a private area that is reserved for secret rites of an anti-social nature, according to the artist.


Kelley wanted to use it to work on projects, but he died by suicide in 2012 when he was 57 years old. After his death, the basement was visited by his friends. Paul McCarthy, for example, with whom Mike Kelley collaborated, played music there with the band Extended Organ. McCarthy said that he wasn’t aware of the underground area and only found out about it after Kelley’s death. The home is still sometimes moved to different neighborhoods in Detroit. It was used for various events like A.A. meetings or Quilting Bee programs.

Author Image

By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.