Mary Kelly

McNeil Gallery

Mary Kelly works on a remarkably ambitious scale. Corpus, completed in 1985 and shown here in its entirety, is only the first section of her ongoing Interim project. Begun in 1983, Interim focuses on the experiences of middle-aged women, a heretofore rather ignored segment of our society, through a planned exploration of four themes: body, money, history, and power.

Corpus’ formal and conceptual complexity demands careful description, as there are no insignificant details in Kelly’s work. It consists of 30 paired panels of image and text, arranged in five groups, three pairs to a group. The five groups correspond to the five attitudes passionelles that the 19th-century neuropathologist J. M. Charcot observed in his studies of female hysterics: Menacé, Appel, Supplication, Erotisme, and Extase (threat, appeal, supplication, eroticism, and ecstasy). In the black-framed image panels, each of these appellations is paired with an article of clothing: leather jacket, handbag, boots, black nightgown, and white dress, respectively. Functioning as a metonymic device for the body, each emblematic object is “posed” in one of three different ways: folded closed, opened as if for inspection, or bound up by its own sleeves, laces, or belts. It is then labeled with the appropriate attitude in a typeface and logo or diagrammatic element that references fashion/advertising, popular medicine, or romantic fiction (the supermarket variety)—three of this culture’s image systems that define women. The photo-positive image and type are laminated onto a Plexiglas surface so that they cast a shadow onto colored backgrounds, which range from a flesh-colored beige to a warm pink; the use of these colors subliminally reinforces the images’ conceptual correspondences.

The silver-framed text panels take the form of first-person narratives, based on Kelly’s compilation of more than 100 conversations. These autobiographical fictions are written out in longhand, silkscreened onto Plexiglas in metallic silver, and set against a black background. In every text panel, selected words or phrases that she has highlighted with red underpainting provide a fragmentary précis of the text. Each of the succinct, well-told tales relates, however obliquely, to its accompanying image panels’ prevailing thematic mode, be it the terms of display, dissection, or sexual delirium. Women’s experiences with friends, children, and lovers are thus perceived in relation to the representational systems that have in large measure shaped them. Literally reflected in the panels, the shadowy reader/viewer lurks simultaneously outside and inside the discourses. However, overidentification with the stories is discouraged by a dryly humorous tone, and by the use of a fairytale ending in each category’s third text panel as a kind of codified, transformative device for clarifying the work’s parodic edge and critical function. A strategy of seduction and release continually draws us in and brings us up short; perspective is possible through the distanced acknowledgment that laughter and irony allow.

While Corpus suggests that the best way to make cogent art about feminine experience is from a position that privileges intellect, its appearance is alluring; it’s brainy but it looks sexy too, like all the best women. It embraces the shiny, hard glamour characteristic of advertising imagery (ostensibly to unmask it), a preferred style among many feminist artists working in the ’80s out of the ’70s Conceptualist tradition—particularly Barbara Kruger, with whose work Corpus seems engaged in close polemic. Slickly presented and stiffened by its theoretical armature, Corpus counterposes the stereotypically “feminine” realm of direct, subjective experience against the equally clichéd “masculine” world of intellectualized, fetishized representation. Although the visceral and cerebral realms remain separately imaged, they are meant to be experienced here as mutually implicating and inextricable. By appropriating psycho-logical categorizations and embodying them in terms of culturally dominant methods of representation, Kelly makes apparent the imbricated sociological processes that operate on the construction of feminine experience. This linkage of the personal and political connects Kelly’s enterprise to that of an artist like Hans Haacke, but with a focus on sexual rather than global politics.

Kelly’s work is so carefully controlled and so self-contained that it almost forestalls criticism. In its very sophistication, however, Corpus raises a problematic issue. This work marshals the overriding patriarchal structures for use against themselves. Can its parodic edge and its critical function be sufficiently sharp so that in taking on the forms of these systems it doesn’t assume the guise of a more subtle but equally controlling mastery?

Paula Marincola