Toronto artist Kelly Mark makes funny art. I laugh just thinking about it. She sent a man in a tracksuit into an urban crosswalk to do sprint drills every time the light turned green. She asked friends to hold conversations with bronze figures posed on benches and steps, and filmed their interactions from a distance and without sound, so they truly remain Private Conversations with Public Statuary. She staged a protest with blank placards, participants handing out a blank list of demands while shouting "What do we want? Nothing! When do we want it? Whenever!"
Somehow, this art is funnier than it should be. When I look at some of these—at the Henry Art Gallery, and online at www.ireallyshould.com—I laugh so hard I nearly cry, and all the friends and colleagues I've shown them to have had a similar reaction. Where does the laughter come from? Is it a release from seeing the highfalutin art world brought low by a bunch of deliberately underintellectualized gags? Maybe partly. Blasphemy has its charms. But there's something else, too. Some of that laughter is decompressing the discomfort of a class difference.
Mark has been called a working-class conceptualist, and that's spot-on. She once made a salt-and-pepper-shaker chess set: a former waitress's rejoinder to Duchamp's dilettantish dropout pastime. This is not to say that Mark is some representative of an underclass, and that gallerygoers are meant to plumb their guilt in a lily-white gallery. No, she is a rising star in contemporary art and presumably someone who does all right for herself. But her work exemplifies the fact that contemporary art is effete and divided from an entire class of people who, regardless of their jobs, consider themselves blue-collar in the sense that they see art as the stupefying province of overthinking shut-ins and pussies.
Mark, however, is anything but anti-intellectual. She's a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, and her works are full of references to the '60s and '70s conceptual art, performance, and video that percolated at the school through such teachers as Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt, Hans Haacke, and John Baldessari. Riffing on certain strains from that period and on the relentless serialism of minimalism, she masks her observations in comedy facilitated by a certain affectless surface. Her performances get their low-tech, lowdown grace by being absurd but somehow sensible. They are not just fun and games.
Like days spent in a manufacturing or low-level office job, many of the pieces are governed by laborious patterns of repetition with only the slightest of variations. Her hour-long recitation of things to do, I Really Should, played last year at the Center on Contemporary Art. Two pieces at the Henry show the artist performing rote tasks. 33-Minute Stare is her contest with the camera to see who would look away first (her deadpan description). Hiccup #2 is two screens, each playing Mark's prechoreographed series of mundane movements—smoke, read, sip coffee, scratch neck—for 15 minutes on two separate mornings, as she sat on an outdoor public staircase. She is the static center of the two scenes, and the traffic changes around her.
If art is divorced from the workaday world, on which side of the divide do the artist's loyalties lie? Well, Mark often performs an identity as the hired help; make what you will of that as a comment on being an artist. For her ongoing project In & Out, she punches in and out of her studio and places the cards in steel racks on the wall, just like a worker in some waning industry. The day she watched over the installation of her work at the Henry, she was dressed like a roadie, wearing a black windbreaker that said "STAFF" (another of her ongoing artworks). A group from UW's Exploratory Center for Obesity Research was in the Henry auditorium, when a man wearing a nametag wandered out and began to ask Mark a logistical question. A real museum staffer interrupted him. "This is an exhibiting artist," the real staffer said. Mark looked blankly away from the man, never saying a word about "STAFF," which was not on the checklist for the firstname.lastname@example.org