In the video The Syphilis of Sisyphus (2011), Reid Kelley transported her heroine to the French demimonde. The film centers on a pregnant Parisian prostitute who exemplifies Baudelaire’s paean to the superiority of cosmetic over natural beauty. With sets that shift between Sisyphus’s boudoir and the streets of Paris, the work is an antic romp through Revolutionary and post Revolutionary France, with brief vignettes involving everyone from Diderot, Marie Antoinette, and Marat to Robespierre, Napoleon, and Haussmann. In a commentary on the fate of overly aggressive women, it ends with our rebellious heroine carted off to Charcot’s sanatorium.
As a challenging artist who marches to her own drum, Mary Reid Kelley is in the vanguard of a generation that blends the digital and the analog to dialogue with history. From 2009 to the present, she has made videos that fuse live performance, animation, drawing, sculpture, and digital design. Her characters—a nurse, a prostitute, a bohemian, Ariadne, and the Minotaur—confront the limits of their situations in droll verse. Blending Homer and Cindy Sherman by way of Virginia Woolf, Reid Kelley tells finely wrought narrative epics, rife with wordplay and art historical references. She situates her work in World War I, nineteenth-century Paris, or classical antiquity. Working with archival sources and a range of collaborators, often Patrick Kelley, her husband and an accomplished artist, Reid Kelley invents a poetic hybrid of mediums. By creating or manipulating different aspects of language, performance, and mise-en-scène, she rethinks the potential of the inauthentic to heighten our awareness of the real.