On ViewChapter NY
November 10 – December 20, 2019
Past gallery exhibitions of Ann Greene Kelly’s work have consisted mostly of sculpture. A large part of the New York-born, LA-based artist’s three-dimensional practice involves readymades, which aligns it with that distinctly masculine, if not male tradition in which certain women artists have made a point of intervening. Sarah Lucas comes to mind, and it is not a stretch to posit her work, with its chairs and mattresses and clothes-racks, as a model for Kelly’s, which incorporates many of the same objects, in many of the same ways.
There are no mattresses in Eyelids Are Our Thinnest Skin, a show of Kelly’s recent work now on view now at Chapter. Neither are there chairs. Rather, there are car doors, which appear to have been wrested from their hinges and are now lying flat, paint-job-up, on the gallery floor. There are also drawings, trippy colored-pencil narratives that evoke a mashup of Alice in Wonderland and Proust. Though these aren’t studies—there’s nothing representational about them—until this point Kelly’s drawings have mostly been reserved for her personal process. “They’re almost like these illusionary spaces that she can go to that will influence her, and allow her to explore the ideas and objects that she’s considering,” says gallerist Nicole Russo. According to the show’s press release, Kelly considers them “diaristic.”
Their utility aside, the drawings represent a shift, or perhaps even an opening in a young artist’s career (Kelly is 31), and for this reason, I find them exciting. It is not that Kelly’s other work is bad: it isn’t. But it is derivative in its commitment to exploring the lineage of the readymade and figuring an irreverence, a Lucas-like butchness, that I am not convinced it earns. Where Lucas’s metallic dicks accost, and her stocking-sculptures unnerve, the holes that Kelly gouges into car doors and digs out of mattresses suck the viewer in the same way a wormhole might. Like her drawings, her sculpture seems concerned with the cerebral, the psychological, and, as the show’s title suggests, the delicate. So why the auto parts?
The only explanation I can conjure is that the doors have a meta function. In Front Door Floral Sheet (2019), for example, a maroon door is interrupted by a set of cyclonic forms: portals within portals. The problem is that, in art history as in American life, the semiotic heft of the car is so intense that it’s hard, for me anyway, to look at any part of one and think of anything but speed and muscle, as opposed to mediation and sinew.
Admittedly, the very presence of Kelly’s drawings may have facilitated these associations and my subsequent critique. But then again, Kelly’s drawings are what made me want to write about her, to consider what appears to be an aperture in a career that until now seemed mostly to grapple with the weight of other people’s work.
Compare the sculpture White Door Little Bag (2019) to the drawing Shirt With Smokestack (2019). For the former, Kelly has used a power tool to create a geometric chasm in the door. Four beveled edges connect to one another, as in a picture frame, but instead of the picture, a plastered-over sweatshirt and a sculpted handbag vie for egress from the underworld to which they have been lost, or forgotten, or, perhaps simply placed. The effect is supposed to be disorienting, terrifying even—is there a woman down there, stripped of her accessories?—but instead it’s flat. As a rule, nonessential objects lack vitality. They don’t animate themselves.
Shirt With Smokestack, however, takes the juxtaposition of mechanical and human at which White Door Little Bag gestures and cranks up the intensity. In a thrilling surrealist move, a coal-black chimney runs the length of a woman’s spine, at the top of which a fire-red lesion spreads, painfully (you can feel it) across her neck and onto her scalp. The woman sits at a table, where a magazine is splayed open, revealing an image of a graying hand and a lotion bottle that could be an advertisement if it is not actually the haunting contents of a distinctly non-literary abyss. I love this work. The discombobulation of it. Circumstance over statement.
All in all, I am sure that Kelly will—and should—continue to move between media. If the cigarette butts and cocktail glasses that riddle her drawings are any indication, she is as at home in her work as she is discomfited by it, which is a problem you want to have, as well as one that sculpture begs to handle.