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Mike Kelley - a (too short) life in full at MOCA Geffen Contemporary

Animal Self and Friend of the Animals, Mike Kelley, 1987
Animal Self and Friend of the Animals, Mike Kelley, 1987
Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

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Off-Ramp host John Rabe talks with curator Bennett Simpson about "Mike Kelley," the new exhibit at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, on view until July 28. It's the latest and biggest iteration of the traveling show that acts as Kelley's artistic biography.

Mike Kelley's suicide in South Pasadena in 2012 shook the art world, but it hit the LA scene especially hard, because Kelley had been an integral part of it for 35 years, as a brilliant young art student who arrived here, fully formed if prickly, from Detroit. He did performance art in the punk clubs, taught aspiring artists, then hit it big in the 1980s but kept living in his modest home in South Pasadena, and kept creating almost until he died.

The exhibition includes more than 250 works, occupying all of The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and an additional gallery at MOCA Grand Avenue. But the body of Kelley's work is not just impressive in size - almost no medium has been left untouched.

"He worked in pretty much anything he wanted to: painting, sculpture, video, installations, drawing, photography, sound. He was a great writer and a great lecture," said Simpson. "He was a polymath."

Kelley's work brings an imaginative and dark humor to themes like family, home and sexuality. He often incorporated stuffed animals or other childhood relics into his pieces, like in the poster you may have seen promoting the exhibition around Los Angeles. It features mugshots of seven sadly worn stuffed animals and one of the artist himself, looking equally glum.

"He dealt with basic themes: home, the relationship of the artist to society, families, sexuality," said Simpson. "He is one of the few artists I can think of to deal so explicitly and so imaginatively with class structures and class relations."

One of Kelley's most well-known pieces is a tapestry of stuffed animals and crocheted blankets titled MORE LOVE HOURS THAN CAN EVER BE REPAID AND THE WAGES OF SIN (1987). After his death in 2012, a spontaneous memorial was created by grieving friends, colleagues, students and fans who adorned the walls of an abandoned car port in Highland Park with blankets and stuffed animals as a tribute to this piece. The original work is now on display at the MOCA retrospective.

"It hits you in the gut and it's also smart. And it kicks you in the butt and it laughs out loud," said Simpson of Kelley's colorful and imaginative work.