Toronto

Kelly Mark

Art Gallery of Ontario

At the entrance to the gallery where Kelly Mark’s recent works were on display, a video monitor showed the artist keeping watch, her gaze fixed approximately at eye level. She stares blankly for the most part, almost as if mimicking you staring at her. Her eyes sometimes become glassy with the strain of focusing for a sustained period. Despite her equanimity, you imagine a cinematic flickering of thoughts and memories passing over the empty screen of her gaze; then her eyes begin to flutter and roll up in her head as she fights off sleep. She regains her composure and the staring continues as before. Although it is the only video on offer, 33 Minute Stare, 1996, shares the subtlety, simplicity, and wit of Mark’s drawings and sculptures, and provides a neat analogy for the exhibit: the impulse to project emotion onto Mark’s visage is like the impulse to project interpretations onto her work, which playfully resists such earnest intervention.

The artist’s wry sense of humor is notable in works like three drawings entitled Mirado Classic, Venus Velvet, and Dixon, all 1997, in which graphite scribblings condense into near-identical circles in the center of each work. The dense marks distress the paper, causing it to shimmer and bend, suggesting a latent three—dimensionality, while the titles—the brand names of pencils—make the gray blobs sound like Hollywood starlets. One’s initial strategy is to search out subtle differences in the works, but such bland empiricism overlooks the flirtatiousness of the mark—making: the giddy squiggles, the sensual swell and pucker of the paper. Like some of her Minimalist predecessors, Mark frequently employs repetition or serial imagery, but her quotidian references and comic twists flag her sensibility as distinctly ’90s. In 25 Hundred, 1997, that number of letter-size papers has been crumpled and stuck in a slatted wood construction that resembles an Agnes Martin grid writ in three dimensions, or a huge spice rack. Variations in the papers’ hues emerge after staring (bringing the realization that the video was also a kind of suggestion): pinky white, bluish white, white with sepia undertones. But 25 Hundred is also a monument to compulsiveness.

Conceptualism, too, gets tweaked here, in Object Carried for One Year, March 20, 1996–March 20, 1997. The worn aluminum bar, bearing just-visible nicks and other traces of handling, has been inscribed with its title and the time, 10 A.M., beneath each date, and placed in a Plexiglas case for exhibition. Although curator Christina Ritchie vouches in her brochure essay that Mark did indeed carry the object “in the back pocket of her jeans for a year,” there isn't the zeal of Linda Montano’s extended “Art/ Life” performances, for example; the work is laborious but unfettered. In this sense, Object Carried for One Year more closely resembles Micah Lexier’s sprawling series of works under the rubric “A Minute of My Time,” including a custom-minted coin and acid etchings on stainless steel that each represent a single moment’s effort.

Sure enough, much of the critical buzz around Mark’s work is dusted with speculation as to the meanings and intentions behind her compulsive gestures. But the work sharpened my awareness of the limits and pitfalls of interpretation, throwing into relief the risks of readings that close off as much as they open up. How and why is it, the underdetermined facades of the works call into question, that we are so quick to attach meanings (for example, as one critic has postulated, the absurdity of manual labor in a technologically driven society) on evidence that may be a bit too flimsy to support them? Mark’s exhibit offered us a self-conscious exercise in looking that began with her own.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark