In a 2006 interview I conducted with Mike Kelley for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, I asked if, after 30 years in Los Angeles, he still felt connected to his home state (as well as mine), Michigan. Kelley replied, “Oh yeah, I’m a Detroiter. There’s no doubt about that. I’m much more of a Detroiter than a Los Angelino.” This sense of connection is the foundation of Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley & Jim Shaw at Michigan State University’s Broad Museum, a joint survey of Kelley and fellow Michigan native Jim Shaw, curated by the museum’s director Marc-Olivier Wahler and assistant curators Carla Acevedo-Yates and Steven L. Bridges.
Kelley (born in 1954 in Wayne, Michigan) and Shaw (born in 1952 in Midland, Michigan) met in 1972 as undergraduate art students at the University of Michigan (U of M), where they formed a conceptual noise band, Destroy All Monsters, with two other art students, Cary Loren and Niagara. They left Michigan in 1976 for graduate school at CalArts. Both artists settled in Los Angeles, where they maintained their friendship until Kelley’s untimely death in 2012.
For fans of Kelley and Shaw, Michigan Stories is a kind of origin story, a way to decipher the work of two multifaceted and prolific artists. It begins in Ann Arbor, with their collaborations at U of M and in Destroy All Monsters, before splitting into their separate but intersecting practices in California. What distinguishes the exhibition from standard biography is its representation of Michigan’s visual and social culture as formative influences and unique phenomena. In Kelley’s words, “It’s a very particular place.”