If a historical textbook came to life as a haunted puppet show, the result would resemble a Mary Reid Kelley film.
The South Carolina-born artist delivers cartoonishly warped, black-and-white worlds, generously spliced with rhymes, puns and doublespeak, turning unspoken historical narratives into absurd living dioramas. Four of Kelley's mytho-historical films are heading to ICA Boston this month, offering what we're sure is the summer's most aesthetically enticing option for brushing up on your history.
Drawing inspiration from historical moments from World War I to the French Revolution, Kelley's works exist somewhere between Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon," a Dia de los Muertos parade and a Tim Burton film set. Trained as a painter, Kelley treats her body, set, costume and props as a giant canvas, making herself and her surroundings unrecognizable with a monochromatic paint palette.
Her bug-eyed characters feature bulging, black orbs where eyes should be, obscuring the most human aspects of the face. Blatantly masked and artificial, her characters operate in a realm between truth-telling and joke-telling.
"The stains on my sheets/ will come out with some lemon/ I know that you care/ by these Marx on my Lenin," Kelley says in her film "Sadie, The Saddest Sadist." Such indulgent wordplay runs thick throughout Kelley's films, a move that effectively pins logical sense against sensual sense, leaving both modes of language to duke it out on screen.
"Punning and wordplay is an essential expressive mode," Kelley recently said in a discussion with Modern Art Notes' Tyler Green. "I think that puns in particular express this betrayal from the inside of language that was resonating then and resonates now... The fact that tall and ball have this similar sound to them -- there is no logical association. It simply happens in the body. It's a counter-poise to that logical thrust."
Kelley's films, made in collaboration with her husband Patrick Kelley, will show at ICA Boston from July 31 until October 27, 2013. Included in this exhibition are still shots from 2011's "The Syphilis of Sisyphus," in which Kelley plays a 19th century pregnant French prostitute named Sisyphus. In skeletal makeup and ostentatious costumery, Kelley discusses gender, modernity and artifice in her signature punning voice. Take a look at images from the show here and let us know your thoughts in the comments.