Tough Love

An Interview with Kelly Mark

Kelly Mark, I Love Love Songs … But Angry Music Makes Me Happy, 2017, single-channel video, silent, 6 minutes with reverse loop. All images courtesy the artist and Olga Korper Gallery, Toronto.

Kelly Mark works hard as the self-employed worker Kelly Mark. For over two decades the Toronto-based artist has been making videos, drawings, sculptures, text pieces and performances that have earned her a reputation as one of Canada’s most important conceptual artists. Labelled favourably by critics as “a working-class conceptualist,” she has been attracted to ideas from her earliest encounter with art. In the following interview, she remembers her first day at the Dundas Valley School of Art in Hamilton, Ontario, where she recognized that being an artist had nothing to do with how well you painted. “It was about adults sitting around talking about ideas and I had never experienced that in my life. So by the end of the first week I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” There is something both poignant and profound in her early recognition, and it has turned into a lifelong conviction.

Mark has remarked on many occasions that an inherited work ethic has governed her art production. If you can do one thing, she readily admits, then you can as easily do 30, the number that seems to be her numerical touchstone. While it is true that she believes in hard work, it is important to realize that she believes no less passionately in the catalytic role that the imagination plays in artistic production. Let’s call her “a conceptual labourerist,” wearing her workingclass heart on her rolled-up sleeves for anyone to peck at.

Part of what makes her work so likeable is the evidence it provides about the kind of person who would produce it in the first place. Mark is an artist who is not short on personality, and she has cultivated a no-frills, baseball-capped, harddrinking and -smoking, tough-girl image that is both personal and persona. She is that person at the same time that she knows she is performing that person.

She is prone to colourful language. In Litany, 2001, a drawing etched on aluminum foil made in an edition of only two, she wrote and then framed, in reverse, every swear word and combination of swear words she could think of; in Fuck Yeah (Portrait of the Artist as a Curmudgeon), a grumpy manifesto from 2016, she combines her expressive language with her favourite character trait, tempering the surliness with as much humour as she can manufacture.

Smoke Buddies, 2017, two video stills, single-channel video, silent, 11 minutes.

Mark is extremely funny, and she delivers her punchlines with economy and sometimes with a left hook. Her text-based pieces trace an alltoo- human toggling between wished-for selfimprovement and a recognition of abject failure, so nothing comes of the “I really shoulds,” any more than a resolution can emerge from the Everything / Nothing exchange: “EVERYTHING has a way of working itself out / NOTHING good can come from this” is a psychological end game. There are ways out, though. In The Trade Off, 2016, a cross-stitched drawing on linen, she writes in upper-case letters how to accommodate the aging process: THE TRADE OFF / OF GETTING OLD / IS THAT TAKING / DRUGS AINT FUN / ANYMORE BUT / AT LEAST ITS / TAX DEDUCTIBLE.

In Mark’s lexicon, “but” is a very big word. It’s the hinge that draws attention to the intelligent skepticism that runs throughout her practice. Her binary thinking is too subtle to be dialectical; it slips around the work like axle grease on the cog of her intelligence. There are times when she shifts gears and moves into absurdity; in 2008 she made billboard advertisements and promotional photographs for a band that didn’t exist; just as she had organized a public demonstration outside an art gallery for no issue at all, urging the 30 protestors who carried empty placards to chant the slogan “What do we want … NOTHING, When do we want it … NOW” for two and a half hours.

It was this empty form in Demonstration, 2003, that occasioned The Power Plant to invite her to stage an intervention at the Power Ball gala. In Public Performance, 2010, she hired three pairs of actors to engage in noisy couple fights, which confronted the pricey ticket buyers when they arrived at the fundraiser. They weren’t in on the performance but they most assuredly were in it. Mark’s sense of humour can be like the joke that goes, “It was so funny, I laughed my head off. Plop.”

She can also be goofy. In Sniff, 1999, a seven and a half-minute video made with her cat, Roonie, she plays what she calls “the sniff and pokey game.” The game involves her introducing to her supine cat a series of objects, and waiting for his reaction. The truth is, Roonie should have been given the Acatemy Award for Best Animal Performance in a Human Video; the range of his reactions runs from disdainful indifference to catnip-induced, consuming frenzy. (The video, which is on Mark’s excellent website, is hilarious.)

She is, herself, a skilful performer. In 108 Leyton Ave, a 10-minute-long, single-channel, splitscreen video made in 2014, she and her doubled self play solitaire and exchange a series of consecutive “Everything” and “Nothing” aphorisms, epigraphs and clichés. By the time her right-hand self moves out of frame, leaving her left-hand self playing an even more lonely form of solitaire, they will have given us a whole lifetime’s worth of hope, bitterness, longing and depression. She is adept at capturing what she describes in her artist’s statement as “differing shades of pathos and humour,” and this video embodies that frame and pretty well everything in between. Like everything Mark does, 108 Leyton Ave is carefully detailed (an image of her iconic kissing television screens hangs on the wall behind them) and disguises the prodigious amount of planning and execution that went into its making. In her working schedule, she always puts in overtime.

Everything is Interesting, 2011, neon and transformers, 40 x 3 inches. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Her most recent work seems to be punching a different time clock. While only 51, she is in a memento mori frame of mind. In 2017 she assigned that name to a bronze ashtray with a crumpled cigarette at its centre (a work that actually deserves the description “tabletop sculpture”). It is gorgeous, another example, along with Smoke Buddies, of her ability to take bad habits and turn them into exceptional art. And the dry humour persists. Her Strategy for Immortality, 2016, another cross-stitched drawing on linen, reads, “I ADDED DYING / TO MY LISTS / OF THINGS TO DO / THAT WAY / ILL PROBABLY / JUST NEVER GET / AROUND TO IT.”

But there is something about this recent turn to her own past that feels different. There is much to work back into. In Trying to Remember, Sometimes Wishing I Could Forget, 1996/2016, the twodecade- long gap in the dating is telling. Her first video, made in 1996 and called 33 Minute Stare, is now sharing a split screen with her newest video, in which she is trying to remember all the things she has forgotten. Along with the worry of not remembering comes the regret when you do.

It isn’t obvious where Mark’s memorial work will take her. But what is clear is the commitment she made 20 years ago to how ideas work in manufacturing art, and that is as organized as it ever was. Kelly continues, as she always has done, to find ways to make her mark.

The following interview was conducted in Toronto on January 20, 2018.

Border Crossings: Give me a sense of what your life was like, growing up as a child.

Kelly Mark: Small town. I had brothers and sisters but they were older. It’s why I’m kind of a hermit and single because I grew up learning to play on my own. I used to go fishing on my own, too. I never took art in school.

So there wasn’t any art around the house?

No. When I did go to Dundas Valley School of Art, I didn’t know who Henry Moore was, or Picasso, or anything. My dad had grade eight; my mom had grade seven. No books in the house. None of the family ever went to post-secondary. So when I graduated from high school, I was expected to get a job. University was for smart rich kids. The only thing I did that had any relation to art was doodling on friends’ jean jackets and on Bristol boards with a pen and Magic Marker. I would hang out with friends and draw on their arms when we were drinking.

Fucking Die Already, 2017, ballpoint pen on archival matte board, 24 x 24 inches.

But you never thought of that as art?

No. After high school I worked at every shitty job imaginable. I spent six or seven years working the night shift at Mac’s Milk, getting robbed. I was living in Hamilton with some friends from high school and one day one of them came home, put the Dundas Valley School of Art application on the fridge and said, “You should go to art school.” I don’t remember why I went down there but I did. The place looked like an art school with wooden floors and windows you had to hold up with bricks. I showed them my little doodles and a week later they accepted me. I remember the first day of school clearly. I was really scared and nervous because I wasn’t smart and I didn’t have any skills. At Dundas there were always a lot of first-year students, there were second-year students, and sometimes a couple of third-year students who wanted to stick around and pay tuition. I remember the third-year students’ being really cool, wearing jackets and smoking in class. It totally felt like I was in grade nine. This was probably how they started every term, but all the first-years were taken up to the loft to do life drawing with a naked male model. I was dying and I remember thinking, “I can’t draw, what am I doing here?” I knew I was leaving as soon as there was a break. But before we were allowed to go out for a smoke, they had us walk around and look at all the drawings, and it turned out everybody sucked. It was obviously a big bonding moment, right? After a couple of days I realized it wasn’t about skills. It was adults sitting around talking about ideas, and I had never experienced that in my life. That just didn’t happen in my family. So by the end of the first week I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t know about an art career, or what that meant, or what a BFA was or anything. I knew I just wanted to sit around and talk about stuff.

What’s interesting is that the lean towards the conceptual, towards the idea of art rather more than the object of art, was present right from the start.

Yes. I was also lucky in a lot of ways. Because my dad worked in a steel mill and my mom worked at Canadian Tire, I got only a quarter of the student loans I applied for, and since my parents couldn’t and wouldn’t help out, I didn’t have the money to pay my tuition. I remember going back to school and crying, and one of my friends told the director, and they ended up giving me free tuition for two years. I had to empty the garbage and sweep up after class, and in the summer I’d paint walls and answer the phone for the secretaries at lunch.

Were you learning quickly?

Yeah. At Dundas they stopped giving me assignments halfway through the third year because I’d do 30 versions of what they had assigned. Then, because I was the custodian, I had a key to the place, so I’d work in my studio at night on my own. They loved me because of my work ethic. One funny thing was that it was a painting school and they had no sculpture facilities or darkrooms or anything like that. They had a table saw in the basement. They also said that my paintings were very physical and that I couldn’t paint worth shit, so when they gave assignments they told me to do them in 3D. I was like the dumb sculptor who had to do it in 3D.

Then you went to NSCAD in 1991.

Yes. I was very lucky there, too, because it was during the glory days. I worked mostly with Gerry Ferguson. He let me do whatever I wanted and he graded me on it. I only ever took two classes at NSCAD. One was welding because I wanted to hang out in the welding shop. And then I took a drawing class with Michael Fernandez because I thought I should improve my drawing skills, and, of course, because it was Michael Fernandez, we spent the whole semester drawing how the inside of our body felt. So I didn’t learn how to draw.

You have said that you never deal with grand concepts but with small moments. Did you quickly develop an attitude toward making art where you determined that you weren’t going for the big gesture?

A lot of it was by making mistakes. You learn by making mistakes. I had been making some figurative things in sculpture, and when I started working with Gerry, he told me to get rid of the form and concentrate on the process. I liked the aspect of the grid and I liked repetition, so I found a fireplace grate, bought a box of nails with big heads on them and just dropped them into a grid. I ended up making 30 pieces a day. Gerry would come in and say, “Cool, see you next week.” He never really talked to me about my work for the first semester and a half. At NSCAD everything was non-representational and everything had a logic. I called it “A to Z Conceptualism”; things had to have a starting point and a finishing point. It was all measurements and row after row of Carl Andre stuff, and there was a lot of taking things apart and putting them back together. Then at some point Gerry came in and talked to me about deconstruction and the Situationists and I got into that for a whole year. I was a student and if you’re a student, your work has to be about something, right? But I realized it was bullshit and it wasn’t me. I didn’t know anything about deconstruction then and I still don’t. I remember getting in trouble one Christmas for taking apart my brother’s new LED clock radio and trying to put it back together. For me, it was about investigating materials. Art is about noticing what’s happening and not following a program that runs from A to Z. I didn’t need to throw on all this stuff that wasn’t there. That’s when art is bullshit.

Tell me about the first Knife Collection piece you did in 1995.

Fucking Die Already, 2017, ballpoint pen on archival matte board, 24 x 24 inches.

I had started waitressing right after art school because it was the only thing that I knew. I was never going to teach, never going to work in a gallery, never going to be a studio assistant for another artist. But it was totally weird going back to waitressing because my head was different. I had to do it to make money, but a lot of art came out of that. All the knives were stolen in that piece, either from restaurants or from friends’ houses. A lot of people say my work ends up looking funny, but, for me, the funny shit happened when I was making it. Working on the White Jars in 1994—it was my last piece at NSCAD—I would go into a store with a shopping list that would include lima beans and a white bra; or vice versa with Black Jars two years later, it would be axle grease, a Bible, some stockings and black chili. Everything on the counter was black but no one at the cash register ever looked down and no one ever said anything.

They might have been afraid to ask. At the same time, one idea that runs throughout the work is “work.” In 1999 you did Nine to Five, where you take a two-hour segment, put it on four monitors, do the math, and four times two adds up to one working day. Were you consciously playing with the motif of artist’s labour?

A lot of it was conscious after the fact. Early on, I was concerned that my practice seemed all over the place, and it is all over the place. It’s only after 20 years that I’ll do an artist’s talk and see what I had done. Just because I made it doesn’t mean I understood all the connections. I’ve noticed that certain things do come up: humour is always there and time is always there. And so is the working-class thing. I’m working class in the sense that I don’t read books on theory and my idea of entertainment is NFL football and not the latest movie that everyone’s talking about, but at the same time I haven’t had a job in 13 years. I guess this is my job.

The way you approach the job of making art seems to be filtered through the influence of conceptualism and minimalism.

Yes. The thing is, it’s tied to personality. Everything is labelled, right? When I moved to Toronto I got a job as a line cook, and because the place hadn’t opened the executive chef asked me to organize the storeroom. When he came back on Monday I had unpacked all the boxes and organized and separated everything—tomato-based soup products, spices, chemicals—and all the labels were facing forward. You know, rows of colanders. I’m just anal as hell. I can’t make scatter work. I’ve never made a scatter work. I make stuff, right? And it’s art if you recognize it as art; if you don’t recognize it, it’s fine. But I still make stuff. I made a full-body fun fur suit for my cat once. It’s on my website and I consider it art, but no one else does. Only about half of what I do actually becomes art.

When did you first use text in one of your works?

I think I did the refrigerator first, but I don’t remember why. It was a one-night show in an apartment, and I remember I filled the fridge with white food, white jars, and supplied the outside with an erasable marker. That’s what you do, right, you put notes on your fridge? I think that’s where I started handwritten things like “I really should lose weight,” “I really should clean out my wallet,” “I really should blah, blah, blah.” Then at the end I just put “dot dot dot”; I’ve always liked the dot dot dot. I remember I was at Dundas Valley and I wrote them all out. In a way, it’s a monument to procrastination, listing common things and selfperceived character flaws.

Were you categorizing things in your head?

No, it was stream-of-consciousness: “I really should stop shooting elastics at the cat”; “I really should take the cat to the vet”; “I really should pay back my student loan.” It jumps all over the place.

In realizing how generative text could be, did you begin to play with the aphoristic, the short statement, or statements that were parallel or contradictory? Did you realize that language was a place you could go?

I never saw it as a ‘language’ kind of thing. It’s a classic conceptual framework where you have an idea of what you want to do and then you decide what form it should take: that would be a good video; that’s a drawing; that should be a bronze sculpture. A lot of my text pieces come out of watching TV or from what other people say. I heard “resting bitch face” on TV the other day, a phrase I’d never heard, but as soon as I did, I knew exactly what it was. I have a resting bitch face. If I’m not talking and animated, people think I’m mad or depressed and they ask, “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” I get that all the time. So I want to do something with that. I don’t know if it’s going to be the title of the show, but I know it’s not a drawing and it’s not a neon sign. Sometimes I have a phrase and I don’t know what to do with it. Other times it’s absolutely obvious what I’m going to do. Like when I was in Venice hanging out with the Fastwürms and either Dai or Kim said, “Nothing is so important that it needs to be made in six-foot neon.” It stayed in my head because I had made and sold a lot of stupid neon.

…to continue reading the interview with Kelly Mark, order a copy of Issue #145, or SUBSCRIBE today!

Volume 37, Number 1

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #145, published March 2018.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.