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Mary Kelly

(b. 1941)


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(1941– )

American artist who has been highly influential in the theory and practice of feminist art. Born in Fort Dodge, she first studied painting in Florence, learning traditional techniques from followers of Giorgio Morandi. However, being more interested in contemporary practice, she moved to London in 1968 to study at St Martin's School of Art. While a student she became interested in film and radical feminist politics (for instance, she was involved in the protests aginst the 1971 Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall). In this context she worked on the collective film project Nightcleaners, about the struggle to unionize women workers. In 1976 she exhibited Post-Partum Document at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. This work drew on a combination of psychoanalytic theory and Kelly's experience as mother. Diary notes were combined with memorabilia, including hand prints and nappies, together with diagrams derived from the work of Jacques Lacan (see psychoanalysis). The purpose was to explore the role of the acquisition of language in the formation of gender identity. She continued this project until 1979. Interim, on which she worked throughout the 1980s, explored issues of female fetishism and the ageing process. The first part, Corpus, combined images of articles of clothing with handwritten texts. A special role is played by a leather jacket, the zip forming a kind of serpentine ‘line of beauty’. Kelly moved to New York in the early 1980s and to Los Angeles in 1996. Much of her later work has examined the trauma produced by political atrocities, as in Mea Culpa (1999), an archive of stories from Sarajevo, South Africa, and elsewhere. Although the theoretical underpinning is less obvious than in earlier works, the artist has spoken of Lacan's notion of trauma—‘a missed confrontation with the Real’—as significant. Kelly has also been active as writer, theorist, and teacher. Love Songs (2007), shown at documenta 12, was partly the result of her work as professor at UCLA and the fascination of her students with the revolutionary events of 1968. It consists of a kind of glass house with texts from the feminist politics of that time.

Further Reading

J. Carson, ‘Mea Culpa: a Conversation with Mary Kelly’, Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 4 (1999)I. White, ‘The Body Politic’, Frieze no. 107 (May 2007)

Subjects: Art.


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