Mary Reid Kelley

By Lauren Razzore and Harry Weil

After visiting Mary Reid Kelley’s solo-exhibition at the Dorsky Museum in New Paltz, New York we got into a long exchange about female artists in the contemporary art market. “White guys come into the world thinking everything is for the taking,” Lauren explained, “and in Hollywood, you can imagine how much that is amplified.” More pressing is that on the larger social and cultural whole, women “are not taught they can have everything. They are taught to fight for it, to care for it, to nurture it and maybe then they can have something.”

 

Reid Kelley’s work was the perfect backdrop for our conversation. With seemingly inexhaustible references to the Enlightenment, World War I, bestiality, and hysteria, her films center on the absence of women from dominant historical and literary accounts. Taking to task the record keepers themselves, she combines live action with hand-painted stage sets that are then 3D composited into elaborate digital productions, on which she has collaborated with her husband, Patrick Kelley. They paint the sets, costumes, and props white and accentuate their geometric forms with thick black lines. The same palette is used in makeup that is messily applied to their actors’ faces, hands, and teeth, while their eyes are hidden behind oversized oval shapes. The result is a curious amalgam of classic cell animation styling and Cubist canvases – imagine if Juan Gris drew Steamboat Willie. But as critics have noted, the flat and cramped spaces of expressionist cinema, especially Robert Weine’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, feels very close to Reid Kelley’s raggedly assembled world.

A particular favorite of ours was Sadie the Saddest Sadist (2009). Set in England during World War I, it introduces us to Sadie, a young woman hopeful of becoming a “modern girl,” who finds work at a munitions factory. “Goodbye, you land of bondage,” she declares, “I’m foot loose and fancy free. I’m going to make my money.” One day, after a shift, she meets a sailor on shore leave named Jack. Overcome with excitement, Sadie implores him to regale her with tales of adventures and voyages abroad. “Tell me your battle story,” she exclaims, “for my passions are inflamed! If the enemy’s sadistic then I’ll beat him at his game! I have a vision of invasion, of desperate acts depraved!” Jack replies in song, begging her to calm down, while also boasting of his worldliness: “I’ve read the whole library, since I’m verbally inclined, I judge books under their covers and I love the ones that rhyme!” She is smitten, and asks that they might enter into “a fluid alliance.”

 

Sadie is, à la philosopher John Locke, an empty vessel waiting to be filled – literally and metaphorically – by a man whose duty it is by virtue of being a man to do the filling. Unfortunately, he fills her with much more than battle tales, but also gonorrhea. Awakening the next morning in her apartment with a headache and an itch on her arm, she passes out on the bedroom floor. Jack looks her over and unsympathetically enforces patriarchal privilege: “You can call my acts illegal, but the law was made for fools, I get away with murder ‘cause Britannia waved the rules.” Filled with self-pity, Sadie admits to not being able to defend herself or find any form of retribution: “I would tell my tale of sorrow, I would write my Magnum Opus, but my tail’s between my legs and I have Coitus Interruptus. [. . .] I gave you my applause, and you gave me the clap.”

To transition between scenes, and advance the narrative along, Reid Kelley uses stop-motion to animate letters. Text merrily dances across the screen, as words become jumbled, shuffle around and form into other words. Surplus Devotion becomes Spurs Devolution, Unloved Puss Riot, Loves Input Sourd, Virus Loots Unpend and End Virtuous Slop. There is a clever poeticism to all this, as it elaborates on characters and their dialogue. This word play is typical of her earlier films; however, more established now, she obsesses over the details in the stage sets. Reid Kelley has embraced her role as a storyteller, using typography as a background player integrated into the characters and sets themselves. In the most recent film Priapus Agonistes, the text is limited to a brown paper bag that covers the Minotaur’s head, costumes, and graffiti scrawled across the walls of his lair. Language and text are now seamlessly and carefully incorporated into a much more unified whole.

 

In You Make Me Iliad, a young German soldier, with aspirations of greatness as a writer on a par with Homer, meets a nameless prostitute, similarly a victim of war-torn circumstance. They match wits in a long exchange about literary inspiration and artistic genius, which fails to interrupt her douching routine. He desires a muse, while she just wants to get it over with, bluntly cutting to the chase: “Do you recall my home/ it was on route/ your armies sacked it/ as I balled my eyes quite helplessly/ but in this setting/ I am alpha female/ and I am alpha betting/ that you can’t spell disaster/ you are slow to learn/ which will make the clean up faster.” Romanticized images from the trenches of heroic deeds and merciless battles of the kind Sadie elicits from Jack have long perpetuated the myth of manhood. Here, in this film, our focus is turned to those outside of the trenches, as both characters lose their innocence in the midst of imperial aggression and mechanized war. As dreams are crushed, how will they be remembered, if at all, by history?

Reid Kelley is a modern day minstrel, using carefully crafted puns and rhymes to seduce viewers into this narrative, which only ends in death by mustard gas. In an interview with Art 21, she explains however that women are her focus, who are “often cut-off quite deliberately from artistic expression or artistic experience.” They have been silenced, while the accounts of men are held in perpetuity, lauded by critics and academics alike: “Women did not have those opportunities to process what had happened to them, so they couldn’t put the trauma anywhere but in the deep dark recesses of history.” Her films fill those recesses, salvaging what she can from the historical abyss.

 

 

Mary Reid Kelley

Working Objects and Videos

Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY at New Paltz

January 22 - April 13, 2014

 

Harry J. Weil lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

Lauren Razzore is an Associate Professor of Interactive Multimedia and Chair of the Art Department at William Paterson University. She is a professional web and graphic designer working in New York City.

Harry J. Weil is an Adjunct Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History. This essay is a project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

Images:

 

Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley

Still from You Make Me Iliad, 2010

HD video, sound, 14 min. 49 sec.

Courtesy the artist and Fredericks and Freiser, New York

 

Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley

Still from Priapus Agonistes, 2013

HD video, sound, 15 min. 9 sec.,

Courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, New York

 

Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley

Still from You Make Me Iliad, 2010

HD video, sound, 14 min. 49 sec.

Courtesy the artist and Fredericks and Freiser, New York

 

Mary Reid Kelley

Working Objects and Videos

Installation at the Samuel Dorsky Museum, New Paltz, NY

March/ April '14      Bau is Back in the Haus          Hannah Hoch          Mary Reid Kelley