By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES, March 30 (Reuters) - With sullied stuffed animals, models of a sci-fi city and a statue of astronaut John Glenn covered in broken ceramic, a retrospective on influential contemporary artist Mike Kelley opens on Monday in Los Angeles, two years after the artist took his own life.
The idiosyncratic artist is best known for his work with found objects that evoke and question memories from youth, notably 1987's "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and the Wages of Sin," a collection of discarded stuffed animals and dolls hung on used afghans next to a table of candles.
The exhibition at the city's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is as moving as it is large. Organizers began assembling the 250-plus-work show in 2008 with Kelley but had to finish it without him after his death at age 57 in January 2012.
"It was going to be a thematic retrospective that was very much involved in his participation and collaboration," said Ann Goldstein, the exhibition's curator and a former artistic director at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
"With his absence there was a feeling that it needed to be a different kind of show, that maybe because the work was suddenly brutally finished," Goldstein added.
The show marks not only the first under new director Philippe Vergne, but it is also a chance for the institution to reboot itself after funding and leadership troubles in the past year threw into doubt its future as an independent museum.
Kelley was born in 1954 in suburban Detroit and attended the University of Michigan before moving to Southern California in 1976 to attend the California Institute of the Arts and later settling in as a prominent figure in the Los Angeles art scene.
Kelley, working closely with college friend and artist Jim Shaw, helped form a second generation of post-war Los Angeles artists in the wake of the pop painting of Ed Ruscha and conceptual art of John Baldessari, who was Kelley's professor. His death came as a shock to the art world.
At the center of the retrospective are large-scale works like "More Love Hours," a view on the idea of commodifying love and emotion.
"On a first glance you look at these stuffed animals and you think they're so cute and adorable and then you realize they're kind of filthy, they're kind of tattered, the afghans are kind of shredded," Goldstein said.
"You realized that they were all thrown away," she added. "They were made with this idea of love and this idea of giving and they were used up and they were tossed, and he wouldn't have gotten them if they hadn't been tossed away."
Another example of Kelley's large-scale work is 1988's "Pay for Your Pleasure," an installation of 42 banner paintings hung in a corridor that feature the face of a prominent historical thinker and a quote linking art with crime.
Its original unveiling in Chicago had a painting by serial killer John Wayne Gacy at the end of the corridor with a box asking for donations to benefit victims' rights groups.
The installation is meant to confront the viewer with esthetic representations of crime and art by criminals. The donation box gives the viewer a sense and opportunity for "pay back" as well.
"It (Kelley's work) goes into many disciplines, from drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, sound, almost architecture," said Vergne, who began his tenure as MOCA director this month.
"He looked, analyzed and contemplated the way Western culture, not only American culture, is layered from education to politics to religion to sexuality," he said.
The exhibition organized by Goldstein, who worked as a curator at MOCA from 1983 to 2009, first went on display in Amsterdam in December 2012, making stops in Paris and New York before its final stop in Los Angeles, where Kelley's risk-taking influence looms large.
"I think it's very hard to overestimate his importance," she said, adding: "His passing was so profoundly affecting to so many people and that's what is so wonderful about this homecoming." (Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)