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A triad of new short videos by Mary Reid Kelley, produced in collaboration with Patrick Kelley, play freely with the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur. In Kelley’s version, athletes from the “Athens Baptist Church” play indoor volleyball to determine the annual sacrifice to the Minotaur. Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, is cursed by Venus (not Poseidon, as in the Greek original) to fall madly in sexual love with Minos’ snow-white bull. After seducing the bull, the Minotaur that is born to Pasiphae is female, not male. And it is Priapus the fertility god, not Theseus, who enters the Labyrinth to slay the Minotaur.
Reid Kelley is an anti-realist. The videos unfold on highly wrought sets that are elaborate displays of artiness. Their designs are a pastiche of art-historical references ranging from German Expressionist cinema to the fabricated set photography of Lucas Samaras. Garish animal print fabrics, striped tube socks and athletic arm-bands, silly wigs, repeated brushstroke patterns, and hand-drawn schematic backgrounds festoon nearly every frame. Goofy, emphatically handmade props like a painted paperboard edition of Interspecies Astrology Magazine—“I mythed you” reads the personals column—make light reading for the horny, lovesick Pasiphae.
With the help of digital compositing, Reid Kelley herself plays all of the characters in the drama, using the same speaking voice for each. Priapus is a half-man, half-fish goblin with a boy-band hairdo. In place of the permanent, massive erection that distinguishes Priapus in classical depictions, Reid Kelley plays a Priapus whose briefs are stuffed with ripe bananas. On most of the female characters, every curve of breast and buttock is outlined loudly in what looks like black paint, over a pale-toned bodysuit. Pasiphae wears a checkered swimsuit that is fringed with messy black yarn at the crotch. These characters have ping-pong balls for eyes, with dots in the center for pupils, and painted dark circles around them. The simple, lightly comic props and costumes are dramatically indifferent, and that’s presumably the point. The characters are dimensionless caricatures, vehicles for Reid Kelley’s writing. (Free copies of the scripts of all three videos are made available in a wall-mounted bin in the gallery.)
One text is an adaptation. The middle of the three videos, Swinburne’s Pasiphae, employs a recently discovered fragment by the Victorian-era poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Written in the style of classical verse, the poem is structured as an exchange between Pasiphae and Daedalus, the brilliant Minoan craftsman who builds a cow decoy for Pasiphae to crawl inside in order to sexually receive the bull. It’s a florid, red-hot paean to bestiality, unpublishable within the poet’s lifetime.
Reid Kelley’s chief literary technique throughout all three videos is the god-awful pun. Pasiphae brags to Venus that “I still insert my clause in every handsome Bill I meet.” Priapus boasts of how he “tied Jason into Argo-knots.” Ariadne, deep in a depression at the end of the cycle, needs a “raisin to live.” “Love’s a vulture, and must carrion,” Priapus offers. Anagrams, too, are in the house. When Daedalus speaks of the “warm violences” that will be visited on Pasiphae by the bull, the video shows a 2-D motion graphics sequence of the letters in the phrase, compressed by a cartoon hammer and brush, reformed into the phrases “Ram nice vowels” “Visceral women” “rev slow cinema”, and finally, “new liver comas”. A handful of critics have saluted Reid Kelley as an authentically virtuosic zany punster.
Puns can be used both to insinuate and to harass, as when Hamlet blocks his would-be interlocutors with phony misunderstandings. But in a supercharged poem about a woman desperate to get fucked by a bull, why the innuendo? Reid Kelley’s deliberately tedious, wince-worthy wordplay doesn’t draw out the meanings of the texts it references so much as strangely rebowdlerize them, this time through the giddy sensibility of a precocious, peppy young theater major. In a contemporary culture where poetry has lost all mainstream force, the pauseless, uninflected, high-toned theater-talk that swells the video’s soundtracks is more barrier than bridge. Reid Kelley’s logocentrism doesn’t heighten the subversive sexual content of Swinburne’s text so much as smother it in unsexy zero-budget theatrical frippery. As in the video work of Mike Kelley (no blood relation, but an obvious influence) the meaning lies in the mood: a medicinal cocktail of lowbrow entertainment, expropriations of the Western canon, and a calculatedly nagging friction between the two.
Mary Reid Kelley was on view from May 23–September 27, 2015 at Hammer Museum.