[First published as a catalogue essay for the Hamilton Art Gallery's exhibition Kelly Mark Literally in 2000. The show was curated by Shirley Madill.]
I have known Kelly Mark for a few years. Not so long ago she ran the bar at an alternative gallery in Halifax called the Khyber, which was once as famous for its raves as its parallel art programming. The Khyber keeps up its alternative art credentials, but its bar is licensed now, and Mark has moved back to Hamilton. Meanwhile, her career has taken off: she is now represented by Toronto's Wynick/Tuck Gallery; she will join a few other Canadian artists in the next Sydney Biennial; and she has just had a solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Mark's art is successful because of the way it marries high art and working class culture. Too often we let ourselves believe the entertainment industry's moronical stereotypes of working class life. Mark presents the materials of everyday work with seriousness and with dignity. Her work fits one conceptualist tradition of not expecting art to do social work the way a poster is used in a strike. High art can allow for a complicated, multi-faceted engagement with life that programmatically Marxist art , for example, cannot be expected to do.
Some of the knives and salt shakers in this exhibition are souvenirs of Mark's waitress jobs. She once worked at Canadian Tire, and she uses Canadian Tire materials in her work. She makes beautiful things in an obsessive way, reminding us that early minimalists such as Carl Andre made working class references in their art which have been lost to us. (Mark tells me that she wants to buy a time clock so that she can punch-in to her studio like it was a wage job--what could better illustrate her working-class bent!)
On one wall of her Ace Art/Site Gallery show Mark hung twenty salt shakers in two pristine plexi boxes just below eye level. The social reference here is plain but understated. Mark often talks about "beauty" being a priority in her work, but she also speaks about the slow-burn violence of low-end jobs. Her stack of salt shakers, so precariously poised at the edge of collapse (less real than visible) is a monument to tables set countless times daily by waiters in restaurants; the video in which she stares into the camera for 33 minutes reminds me of employee monitoring; her orchestrated and counted pounding of wood and metal and her balled waste paper pieces relate, at least for me, to the repetitious labour which gives polish to commodities and a gleam to the eye of good service. As minimalist as Mark's work is, then, so too is it richly allegorical, full of working class references related to its readymade restaurant and hardware materials.
Many artists of Mark's generation (she is thirty) have rebelled against their expressionist painter "mothers" in favour of their post-minimalist and conceptualist "grandmothers." Mark employs materials and methods which have recently become canonical or even historical; at first glance it looks like the work of a much older artist, a minimalist or conceptualist artist of the 1960s avant-garde, and not the work of a young woman. Liz Magor used canning jars twenty years ago, Aganetha Dyck used them ten years ago, and Mark uses them now, but as Mark repeats a time-worn motif or method she always provides a twist which enlivens the tradition. Her virtual versions of service-industry labour are repeated as if in a dream, whereas for earlier artists such as Hanne Darboven and On Kawara repetitive strategies were given poetic resonances of a different, more literary sort.
Back in the 1960s Jackie Winsor and Eva Hesse refined and/or repeated and/or reconfigured and/or symbolically reassigned and/or appropriated minimalist and conceptual art practices to make 'post-minimalist' work which had a feminist bent. Mark's generation assumes that the patents have long expired on process, minimalist and conceptual methods, that the strategies have been fully absorbed into the methodology of contemporary art making, and that their use in new art can mean just about anything that the artist would like. To repeat my argument for Mark's work, in this case that means contemplating the working class ethos out of which this high art is made.