His oeuvre is often discussed by critics as engaging with the concept of Abjection. He staged his most ambitious show to date in November/December 2005, "Day is Done," filling Gagosian Gallery with funhouse-like multimedia installations, including automated furniture, as well as films of dream-like ceremonies inspired by high school year book photos of pageants, sports matches and theater productions. In December 2005, Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz cited "Day is Done" as a pioneering example of "clusterfuck aesthetics," the tendency towards overloaded multimedia environments in contemporary art.
Kelley was born in Wayne, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit in 1954. He was brought up with the city's music scene which spawned such bands as Iggy and the Stooges, and he was a member of Destroy All Monsters.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1978 where he attended the California Institute of the Arts and started to work on a series of projects in which he explored quite a loose or poetic theme, such as The Sublime, Monkey Island and Plato's cave, Lincoln's Profile, using a variety of different media such as drawing, painting, sculpture, performance and writing. Kelley started to gain recognition outside Los Angeles in the mid-eighties with the sculptural objects and installations from the series Half-a-Man and have since then exhibited in galleries and museums in other countries and participated in art events such as Documenta 9. Fans of the music group Sonic Youth will be familiar with his work from the cover and booklet of their 1992 record Dirty. There was a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1993. He has been showing with Metro Pictures, New York since 1982.
Kelley's work is inspired by as diverse sources as history, philosophy, politics, underground rock music, decorative arts and working-class artistic expression. His art often takes up class and gender issues as well as issues of normality, criminality and perversion.
Kelley is currently a faculty member in the graduate department of fine art at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.