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Kyla Mallett’s exhibition, Personhood, presents six large-format archival pigment prints that are stripped-down scans from the covers of 1970s and 80s second-hand and collected self-help books. The artworks, through the depiction of seemingly outdated slogans, investigate and question the history and status of self-improvement within popular culture and the publishing industry.
Parts of the covers, such as the names of authors, have been erased in order to re-contextualize them. Mallett essentially highlights a specific message within each book by focusing on the title, typography, and graphic design. They have taken on a new form that makes them seem more like humorous or absurd advertisements than book covers, allowing Mallett to draw attention to the inherent relationship between self-improvement and marketing.
The title of the exhibition is from the 1986 book Personhood: The Art of Being Fully Human by Leo Buscaglia. This statement in the title exemplifies how this well-constructed genre provides the loneliest with a glimpse of hope. With this book we learn to transform our wellbeing through more effective and empathic interpersonal “human” relationships. The cover has a red background with a line drawing of two profile faces looking at each other. One of them has a tear running down their cheek and there is a rainbow connecting both of them. While the sentiment may be sincere, when looking at it blown up in a frame, one can’t help but feel cynical.
Throughout the twentieth century, self-help books proliferated. Philosophers, psychologists, and cultural theorists popularized various theories around the nature of being. This provided wobbly foundations and strategies for individuals in need to improve themselves in one form or another. James Allen, an early twentieth century British writer known for his inspirational books and poetry and as a pioneer of the self-help movement, believed that a person is literally what they think, their character being the complete sum of all their thoughts. The idea that thoughts have meaning is particularly psychoanalytic. Sigmund Freud believed that automatic thoughts came from the subconscious, and that by delving into the mind, whether through dreams or early childhood memories, one could derive meaning from their thoughts, which could then be used to make sense of themselves.
Over a century later, Brian Despard, a certified mindfulness instructor from Springfield, wrote a book for children called You Are Not Your Thoughts. The type of mindfulness that has become popular in the west has been inspired by ancient Buddhist philosophies. Jeremy Safran, Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research, refers to this cultural appropriated phenomenon as “McMindfulness”. The level of consumption of mindfulness-based publications and the practice of allowing your thoughts to simply be observed without “attachment” or “truth”, may be leading to a passive state in which large groups of people are easily suppressed. This could then be used by existing powers to support capitalist interests. According to Amazon.com, if you are letting your kids get away with murder, you should read Manuel Smith’s 1985 book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty because it will teach you how to assert yourself more effectively.
Curated by Justin Muir
Special thanks to Brian Messini of Proper Design for his collaboration in the production of this work.
Kyla Mallett completed her MFA at the University of British Columbia in 2004 and her BFA at Emily Carr University in 2000. Working primarily in photography, text and print media, her practice engages the intersection of culture and language. She uses archival and statistical research to examine transgressive activities in cultural arenas such as adolescence, feminism, academia, and art. Past works have examined schoolgirls’ notes, girl bullying, gossip, marginalia in library books, hauntings, and aura reading.
Mallett’s work has been exhibited widely, including at the Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver), Vancouver Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton), Modern Fuel (Kingston), Canadian Cultural Centre (Paris), and The Power Plant (Toronto). She has had solo exhibitions in Vancouver at Artspeak, Catriona Jeffries, and Access, as well as ThreeWalls (Chicago), Mount St. Vincent University Gallery (Halifax), The Southern Alberta Art Gallery (Lethbridge), and Mercer Union (Toronto). She is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Visual Art and Material Practice and the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Emily Carr University in Vancouver.
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