Los Angeles

Kerr + Malley

Shea & Bornstein Gallery

The collaborative team of Kerr + Malley produces art that wrestles with issues surrounding the oppression of women. Passionate and forthright, this duo’s photo-and research-based work is constructed to inform and activate viewers. The artists’ consistent strategy is to trace the sociohistorical roots of male-dominated power structures that control the conduct of women’s lives. In particular, Kerr + Malley expose ways in which church and state attempt to criminalize aspects of women’s sexuality and reproductive free choice.

This installation’s title, Just Call Jane, 1991, was derived, as outlined in a page-long explanatory statement, from the name of an underground women’s collective. Dubbing itself “Jane,” the collective operated in Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s, helping women obtain safe, affordable abortions.

“Title X” (all works 1991) is a series of 28 small black and white photographs, framed in specimen mounts—flat, black-edged boxes with transparent tops often employed for displaying insect collections. The display looks clinical and a bit funereal, and the implications of this choice of a framing device, in terms of women’s relationship to the medical/scientific establishment, are chilling. Matted in a pale, institutional green, these photos document facades of clinics, hospitals, and health centers in Los Angeles County that receive Title X funding. Set up in 1970 to provide poor women with medical care and family planning information, Title X’s operations were vastly restricted by a recent Supreme Court decision. In May 1991, the high court ruled that Title X clinics could no longer refer pregnant women to abortion providers when requested, or give any information about abortion other than the phrase “Abortion is not an appropriate method of family planning.” The buildings in the little photos look toylike and span a wide range of architectural styles and neighborhoods. One is struck by how well-integrated these establishments are into their communities; some are located in old houses, and others are sandwiched into mini-malls between pizza parlors and the offices of income-tax preparers.

The remainder of the show consisted of eight upright photo pieces on heavy steel bases. Each approximately seven-foot-tall photo depicts a nude woman, face blurred, standing atop a truncated pedestal. Superimposed over the photos are blown-up details of engravings from 19th-century medical journals and textbooks, showing now-antique gynecological tools in action. The bits of engravings look like plates from some handbook on the history of torture devices. On the reverse side of each photo is a handwritten signed statement in black pen on red board. Dating from 1896–1936, these real, heart-wrenching narratives are “dying declarations”—statements that women who sought medical help after botched abortions were forced to make and sign before they would be treated. The morbidly redundant opening of one reads: “Understanding that I, Mrs. Leonard, am not going to get well, I make this my dying declaration. Having no hope of recovery, I understand that I am not going to live.” Each piece is titled with the name of the woman whose statement appears on its verso. The voices in these historical paragraphs make the helplessness, terror, ignorance, vulnerability, and sometimes courage of these women in dire predicaments uncomfortably immediate. Questions presumably used in interrogating those from whom the declarations were extracted loomed in black capital letters on the gallery walls: DO YOU REALIZE YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE? WITH WHOM HAVE YOU BEEN SEXUALLY INTIMATE? HOW MANY TIMES? Just Call Jane exhibited the grim urgency seen in Kerr + Malley’s past work, as well as a heightened poignancy, the product of the artists’ manipulation of the pathos and power of fact.

Amy Gerstler