Text by: Brad Marcoux
This is an Obvious Thing
It’s simple to ignore the details of the world: to feel nothing, to pass uncaringly by those little things that make the world or make it worthwhile. Denounce everything with cynicism; coast. The work of Kelly Mark, with its obsessiveness, its intense focus on minutia – the building blocks of language, the sad, strange, and funny; those things that we take for granted – forces attention. It takes those little things that we gloss over in our rush for more channels, more information, the “big picture”, and snaps them into focus, puts them in front of us in a way that is almost pornographic in its intimacy. These are the things that we see every day: Mark’s work forces us to really notice, to actually see them. We notice, and in noticing realize that the world is not simple or easy, and that the real beauty of the world lies in the small curves, the dimly lit corners.
This obsessive need for order brings a tension to Mark’s work as it imbues even the dullest pieces of the workaday world with a glow of significance. Her art has been called “working class” in that it employs common materials and focuses on those things that we see, use, and do every single day. No outer edges of the world here: this is about coffee shops and street corners, snippets of overheard conversations, and those people and things you never see in glossy magazines. There have been attempts to fit these “blue collar” themes and materials into a politicized and categorized slot, but the sheer variety of her media and the vast scope of her focus defy simple categorization. After all, how can you so narrowly focus art that makes its scope the entirety of the daily world? It’s devotional, reverential, sad, and funny. Just like life.
The common materials and regular subjects portrayed in Mark’s work are boiled down and made common by systematic repetition to the point of mechanical reproduction. Patterns repeat: a letter curves around a corner; a streetcar passes by; a man runs back and forth at a crosswalk (but only according to the timing of the lights). There are rules here, even if we don’t immediately recognize what they are. And through this repetition and adherence to rules, the mundane world is drawn into the work while at the same time being dusted off and shown to be more than the sum of its parts. This obsession with order is systematic and mechanical, and so tightly bound to the idea of process and procedure as to threaten obliteration of the human. But these same acts of repetition make us take notice, while the slight imprecision of each repeated pattern reminds us that, even inside the mechanized, there is something human. Factories stamp out grommets over and over; we brush our teeth more or less the same way everyday. The parallel is there, but in Mark’s work, those repeated patterns focus and sharpen the event, with the variations drawing out a feeling from the patterns.
It’s sometimes an unnerving experience. “Waiting Man”, a series of photos portraying – well, just that – seem so simple. We see it every single day and walk right by without a thought. But through Mark’s eye, this mundane experience becomes sharp and loaded. First, we become a voyeur, peeking into this man’s day as he waits for… what? His wife? A colleague? In each photo, he hardly moves, but his small gestures – a head turned one way, then another, shoulders hunched, head cocked slightly to the side – suggest a tension, an impatience or excitement. The slightly changing background tell us that time has passed – only a small amount of time, but this passage and his small movements somehow suggest that this is an extended experience. It’s pathetic and funny, this old man standing there: we know it and he seems to know it as well. And we build the stories in our heads with nothing but the smallest details to go on. He’s shopping with his wife. He’s waiting for a cab. There will be some biting words, or perhaps relief and embraces when the unseen, unknown cause of his wait appears. This isn’t something that should be special, unique: it’s the grit of daily life. But we create the stories as we stare, and what we think about this man reflects ourselves more than the reality we’ll never actually know. But in a few small pictures so many possible stories that we would have otherwise walked by and forgotten are told.
The Letraset series of pieces too refocus our eye on the common and banal in a new way. As some of Mark’s newest work, they mark a move from her usual modes of creation. Unlike her photo series, video pieces, or sculptures of everyday objects, the Letrasets step back from the realm of material objects and into a world of pure symbols. In these pieces, the tiniest bits of language are cut up and reconstructed, with the letters and symbols of thought and communication removed from the mechanical preciseness of language. They’ve moved into a new world of communication where the meaning of individual letters and numbers is no longer confined to our understanding of them as simply tools of communication. Instead, they are set free as shapes in and of themselves, with a meaning that both reinvents them as beautiful things and allows their relationship with other symbols to be seen without the baggage of their linguistic relationships. An “s” is no longer a symbol representing a sound – it’s been moved back past its fundamentals to become a shape that we see separately from what we’ve been told it means – perhaps for the first time. This is a truly amazing thing: try looking at a street sign and seeing it as only shapes without reading it and understanding the intended meaning of the language. It’s nearly impossible to do. Yet here are brand-new rule sets and discernible patterns, ones that we don’t understand, but that are clearly there. The pieces’ shapes evoke growing, spreading plant-like shapes, moving outwards or upwards in ways that are unclear to us. There is a pattern here, and we struggle to discern it. The result is some of Mark’s most accessible work – and some of her most beautiful.
The wonder of Kelly Mark’s work lies in the fact that these things she displays on their own seemingly mean nothing. But through her art, we are made to realize that they are core to who we are, and they – not the loud, the bright, the flash – are key, are what builds the world and makes it beautiful. Kelly Mark’s work reminds us that the obvious things are the ones that matter.
Brad Marcoux is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He received a degree in English and Philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, ON and Leeds University, England.
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