PRINT May 2012

Jim Shaw

Mike Kelley, Untitled, 1975, two-color etching with aquatint, 18 x 23 1/2".


WHEN I FIRST MET MIKE, in art school at the University of Michigan, the only thing that was apparent was that we were the two weirdest guys there. As I got to know him better, though, it became obvious that Mike was one of the most naturally gifted painters I would ever meet. Over time, his intellect would come to dominate the various scenes we were involved in. But initially his facility for drawing and coloration set him apart. As a student, his inspirations (de Kooning, Jim Nutt, weirdos) shone through heavily, and I suppose that was why he came to disown most of his undergrad work and left the majority of his paintings and ceramics in a knee-deep junk pile that the landlord eventually emptied out of our college hippie house, God’s Oasis.

One thing I regretted about Mike’s career was that he never allowed that painterly ability to fully unfold again. Perhaps it was the effect of those “educational complexes” unconsciously weighing on him, or of his own inner self-critic, who was always the most scathing reviewer. He often talked about simplifying his practice and just painting by himself, but he couldn’t quite find the time to act on that impulse. Even when we were putting together the Destroy All Monsters show this past spring, he couldn’t find it in his heart to regard the little drawings from the period (which he made as an edition of enlargement prints) as artworks, no matter how beautiful they were. It seems that toward the end, unbeknownst to most of us, he had been working on paintings on paper, much in the mode of those earlier works. Now, of course, there are a great many things to regret—and I’m sure he had a lot of other things ready to spill out of him (writing, video, drawing, music)—but I’ll always think of Mike as a born painter.

Jim Shaw is an artist based in Los Angeles.