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Melanie O'Brian

Griddy Realism: Kelly Mark Mixes Media
Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, April 15 — May 27, 2000

BorderCrossings, Vol. 19 #4, November 2000.
[ 970 words ]


As artist and labourer, Toronto-based Kelly Mark perpetuates the elision between art and life, bringing habitual processes to her art practice and isolating the artistic interest in daily minutiae. Finding a niche among a younger generation of post-conceptualists, Mark's practice of collection, documentation and display within the thematics of '9 to 5' reveals an affinity for the idea-oriented processes of the 1960s as they relate to late capitalism. The resulting work engages a system of practices and influences that spanned Canada (and crossed borders) over the past three decades. Recently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver entitled '||||,' Mark's work is held together by a processual rigour and concept of labour that plays upon the ramifications of repetition and seriality.

Mark's work isolates such quirky human behaviour as the obsessive collection of trinkets or tchotchkes, disengaged channel surfing and compulsive to do lists, pointing to the similarity among these habits. Employing video, photo documentation, sculpture and installation, her work offers insight into cultural customs, examining, in part, the connection between repetitious factory work, or the Mcjob, and the phenomenon of the curio-cabinet or proclivity towards the mono-collection (from shot glasses to ceramic frogs). Mark, a kitchen worker herself, has an extensive dinner knife collection of pilfered utensils. For the '||||,' installation, she laid the knives out in neat rows on the floor, using the grid's emblematic evocation of Modernism as a foundation for her exploration of seriality, as she simultaneously mimicked the humorous absurdity of such collections.

While it imposes a theoretical continuity, the grid, which is at the core of Mark's practice, expresses an infinite expansion as well as a staidness, its endless repetition not necessarily achieving resolution but repressing it. Origami Transfer uses the grid format to display a series of elaborately folded, Toronto public transportation transfers on minimalist steel shelves. The piece reveals the process of daily travel within an urban routine and becomes a monument to the detritus of habits repeated within a contained cycle. Mark uses the ephemeral bus transfer as a marker of this routine, a receipt retained for the duration of travel, worried into sculptures or wads, as the journey is made.

Interested in framing daily habits so they cross into the realm of art, Mark employs literal and process-based gestures to differentiate art and life, as well as to call attention to the pitfalls of such self-conscious delineation. In and Out (1997, 1998, 1999), a wall display of punch cards recording the hours Mark spent making art over a three-year period, notes the artist's studio hours as if she were performing a factory job. Like collection or travel, In and Out chronicles her artistic practice within the framework of serial action. She further literalizes process in Object Carried for One Year, March 20 1996 10 am to March 20 1997 10 am, an aluminum bar carded in her back pocket for the duration of 365 days. 'It was about starting a fetish and having it overtake me,' Mark has said, 'then putting it aside. It's that thing, it's the road, not the end result. It's not what it looks like now, it's the process.'

This is a concern that has appeared as a strategic common denominator within a current of emerging Canadian practices. This post-conceptual stance, taken up by the likes of Mark, Germaine Koh, Damien Moppett and Kelly Wood, relies not only on the given tropes of post-modernism, but more specifically perpetuates strategies such as those proposed by the N.E. Thing Co. from the mid-60s to early 70s. (Mark sought out Gerald Ferguson for her studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, taking cues from his serial work, which used the grid and task-oriented processes spawned in the fervour of international conceptualism at NSCAD in the early 70s.) Building on conceptualism's focus on found and framed objects and ideas, quotation and humour, and on the primacy of ideation (Lucy Lippard), these younger artists insert ideation into late-century visual art practice via the notions of capitalism and commodification, often turning the once-dematerialized document into a fetishized object (consider Koh's series of found street photographs, Moppett's tableau-scale snapshots of sculptural doodles, or Wood's continuous documentation of her garbage output).

While Mark's post-conceptual strategies appear nostalgic (potentially construed as conceptual-lite), her concern seems to be less with the rigour of her Carl André references than with an overarching desire for serial quantification and the relics of process. Her elliptical, task-oriented inquiry into an elaborate banality reworks earlier ideas through contemporary cultural phenomena, illuminating the franchise seriality of our North American culture, the plodding daily repetition, but also the beauty, of its variables, which mark a path rather than a final product. Mark's discipline yields work that is far from that of a cynical slacker; she facilitates what is possible in everyday acts, the humour in the mundane, and sees a way through the potentially deadening '9 to 5' structure of our collective material condition.


BorderCrossings, Vol. 19 #4, November 2000.


Text: © Melanie O'Brian. All rights reserved.

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