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In Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley’s films, characters recite lyrical, dense, and often wistful texts while clad in wild, resourceful costuming—mop strings stand in for long, flowing locks; ping pong balls substitute as eyes, and make-up of a patently unrealistic sort skewers ideas of beauty and theater. Despite such flair, everything appears in grayscale. Reid Kelley and Kelley’s subject in America Rides the Breakfast Table, their show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, centers around former president Harry Truman, the “Pacific Theater” of World War II, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic tale of precolonial America, The Song of Hiawatha (1855).
There’s a clumsy flirtatiousness to the artists’ skewering of industrialism and war as instruments of imperialism—ridicule rubs up against plaintive awe, and history comes off more as narrative than lived reality. (Mary Reid) Kelley-as-Truman is nearly charming, reciting romanticized lines about “the child of wonder” and mushroom clouds. The black and white film In the Body of the Sturgeon (2017) is the exhibition’s centerpiece, and Mary Reid Kelley performs each character—workers, radio operators, and technicians, all trapped in a submarine, self-amused and stir-crazy. They marvel at a world, or rather a milieu, so far from home, longing for the end of their term in what one calls “the cage of silver.”
Sculptures, lightboxes, and paintings augment the exhibition, all also gray. The paintings feature reconfigured text—ticker-tape-like titles from Truman’s library with crossed-out words forming a kind of Mad Lib. A Woman Combat Bibliomaniac (2018), features the famous image of Lauren Bacall astride a piano played by Truman. Over Bacall’s figure, the painted text crashes into some almost-sensible aphorisms—“There’s no place like industrial democracy in action”—alongside less fortunate ones—“The quick brown cream of wit is everywhere.” The painted sculpture Strong Poison (2018) is carefully detailed to make each piece appear cheap, like the props in the dubiously low-budget Sturgeon.
Text, lyricism, and character establish vivid theatricality in the Reid Kelley and Kelley’s works, but the artists at times overextend their swirl of topicality. Even so, there’s obvious wit, and an oddly cutting dimension to the artists’ version of the war economy and immediate post-war world, if you look at it just right. The residents of the Sturgeon suffer from a kind of submarine-induced myopia, losing themselves in isolationist navel-gazing—a familiar, very American scene.
Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley: America Rides the Breakfast Table runs November 3-December 15, 2018 at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects (6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232)