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American contemporary artist Mike Kelley (1954—2012) was one of the most influential voices of his generation. Kelley first emerged in the Los Angeles art scene after graduating from California Institute of the Arts in 1978 and collaborating with bands like Sonic Youth and artists like Paul McCarthy and Tony Oursler. Celebrated as a conceptual multi–media artist, Kelley’s diverse practice is distinguished by its incisive wit, its exploration of absurdity and abjection, as well as a rebellious attitude toward societal norms. His work, which encompassed video, installation, painting, drawing, and sculpture, often drew on the artist’s own biography, flitting between high and low culture, and incorporating sources as diverse as literature, punk music, philosophy and comics. Kelley was recently the subject of a comprehensive international retrospective organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2012, which traveled onto the Centre Pompidou, Paris; MoMA PS1, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The Missing Leg (1984) is made up of three black and white compositions depicting a tin of lard on a fire; a pig with the titular missing leg; and a Los Angeles Police Department badge. This monumental triptych was acquired through the legendary Rosamund Felsen Gallery, which played a vital role in supporting and promoting Kelley’s work from an early stage in his career. This work was originally exhibited as part of Australiana, a forty–piece installation which was shown at the Newport Harbor Biennial at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1984.

The Australiana drawings were made from notes that Kelley made while touring around Australia. For this, Kelley was inspired by the notion of brotherhood between America and Australia, due to their shared heritage as former British colonies. It explored such fundamental oppositions as good and evil, god and the devil, and East coast and West coast.In The Missing Leg, the crisp, five–pointed star emblem contrasts with the bubbling, excessive bucket of fat. The pig has been placed centrally to serve as a connection between the two panels; its fat supplies the contents of the lard bucket and its designation is also a derogatory term for the police that became popular in late 1960s counterculture. This anti–authoritarian impulse is typical of Kelley’s work.

The compositions are rendered in a flat, informational style reminiscent of advertising graphics. Kelley was emphatic that these images were not cartoons but rather, “the most boiled–down way of imaging. This is how you picture something clearly, what you see when you look in a dictionary or a training manual. It has this authoritative look, so you could draw the most meaningless thing and it has this look of authority.” In this way, Kelley used irony to question the nature of authority in both style and subject matter. The work is rich with signifiers, from the boiling pot—a possible metaphor for a turbulent situation—to the wordplay between “LARD” and “LAPD.” The artist was insistent that viewers spend time with his works, to venture deeper than the seemingly familiar surface and try to interpret the work’s true meaning: “ I expect the reader to spend a little time with the work. I’m not interested in quick surface readings. This is especially important in relation to my works that have a socialized veneer, that seem to be a reiteration of mass cultural tropes.” Being offered on the market for the first time since its original purchase, The Missing Leg perfectly embodies Kelley’s subtle and dark comic sensibility.

Cotter, Holland. “Mike Kelley, an Artist With Attitude, Dies at 57.” The New York Times. 01 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2017. Graw, Isabelle. “ Isabelle Graw in Conversation with Mike Kelley.” Mike Kelley. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2011. 9. Print. Kelley, Mike, and John Miller. “ Mike Kelley Interviewed by John Miller in Los Angeles on March 21, 1991.” Mike Kelley. New York: A.R.T. Press, 1992. N. pag. Print.