Mary Kelly Corpus Vielmetter, Los Angeles 3 September – 15 October
It is the mark of a truly successful artist that her work may feel forever contemporary. Corpus, restaged here at Vielmetter Los Angeles, is no less provocative than it was in 1990, when this first installation in Kelly’s larger Interim series debuted at New York’s New Museum. Finished ten years after her seminal Post-partum Document (1973–79), Corpus examines the condition of women after motherhood.
The 30 silkscreened and collaged panels, shown in the ª« for the first time in over 30 years, propose a rigorous, striking examination of ageing women and the fraught history of psychoanalysis. Kelly structures Corpus around nineteenth-century neurologist Jean-martin Charcot’s five-part classification of female hysteria, pairing evocative images of clothing with a scrawled, diaristic narrative by a first-person speaker contemplating the social experience of older women. In an American summer stamped by the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision, Kelly’s work explores the vast territory beyond reproduction, challenging our focus on the young.
Hysteria, no longer considered a viable diagnosis, classified a series of then-unacceptable behaviours in young women – sexual forwardness, emotional expression – as a medical disorder. In a world still centred on the desirability of youth, Corpus reanimates Charcot’s ideas to explore the experience of nonnormative femininity in older age. Five sets of six rectangular panels form the installation, each grouped by language from Charcot’s original taxonomy: the word ‘Supplication’ accompanies a pair of beat-up laced boots; a gauzy black nightgown looms above ‘Érotisme’.
Alongside Kelly’s visual glossary, her handwritten protagonist ruminates over self-help books and antiageing advice, with key phrases highlighted in blood-red acrylic paint. Kelly presents older womanhood without an actual depiction of the body, forcing a confrontation with preconceptions about gender and ageing. Corpus renders the clothing and language associated with the performance of an outcasted femininity – with hysteria – both absurd and enduring, as relevant now as they were in Charcot’s era.
‘I think that being a woman’, Kelly noted in a 2011 interview with Art Monthly, ‘is only a brief period in one’s life.’ The statement resonates with the work in Corpus, where hysteria is recast to envisage the socially abject position of women no longer considered desirable in a persistently sexist popular culture.
Absent any visual representation of the body, Kelly’s work places the viewer into the literal shoes – the boots – of her older feminine subject. From here, American feminism’s focus on reproductive justice feels no less important, but newly limited. Corpus asks a di¯cult question: and then what? Claudia Ross