Mike Kelley (American, 1954–2012) made his mark as one of the most significant artists of our time through his observations of American pop culture across a variety of media, including video, performance, installation, drawing, photography, sound, and text. Throughout his career Kelley insisted that his interest in popular forms—from comic books and horror movies to costume jewelry, scout badges, church posters, and plastic cartoon animals—was not to glorify what he called the “dominant culture” but rather to “flay it, rip it apart, reconfigure it.”

In creating Day Is Done, a feature-length musical-film hybrid, Kelley collected hundreds of high school yearbook photographs of what he described as “extracurricular activities.” He arranged them into various categories, including religious performances, thugs, dance, hick and hillbilly, Halloween and goth, satanic, mimes, and equestrian events. Each of the thirty-one video chapters of the film is based on one of these categories, and consists of a performance or time-based recreation of the activities recorded in the photographs, all set at an undefined institutional building and gymnasium Kelley referred to as “the Educational Complex.” The result is an intentionally disjointed pseudo-narrative that speaks to the cult of cultural and institutional rituals, the complex vulnerability of adolescence, and the related adult experience of potentially traumatic buried memories.

The film exemplifies Kelley’s desire to expose the collective unconscious of American society. It treats its subjects with an approach that is not only dutifully anthropological—identifying and cataloging behaviors and types—but is also radically reconstructive, adding layers of perversity, humor, and surrealism to common, socially accepted rituals of deviance and folk entertainment that serve as escapes from the daily routine of life. As such it is one of Kelley’s signature constructions, typifying his blend of irreverence and poignancy.

Kelley came to prominence in the late 1970s, primarily with solo performances and site-specific installations. In the 1980s his work began to migrate toward sculptures and installations in which he repurposed everyday objects with an elusive relationship to childhood, such as secondhand toys, blankets, and tattered stuffed animals. Audiences interpreted these objects as reflective of an interest in repressed memory and childhood trauma, and Kelley, though he initially viewed such concerns as misunderstandings, embraced the “projected fears” of his viewers. He later incorporated these narratives into the much more ambitious projects that defined the last two decades of his life, such as Day Is Done.