In her first solo show, Mary Reid Kelley combined animation and live action in two pungent and funny videos. Both feature the artist alternately reciting and singing original verse inspired by WWI-era patriotic doggerel. In each black-and-white video, she wears period costume and thick makeup, outlining and obscuring her features, lending a cartoonish appearance. In one video, she wears black ovals that cover her eyes; for the other, she dons bulbous prosthetics with eyes drawn on them, making her face, in both cases, masklike. Reid Kelley’s punning libretto, her sly references to Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and her unified esthetic made for a convincing debut.
Sadie, the Saddest Sadist (7 minutes, 23 seconds), 2009, is set in Great Britain in 1915, according to a free booklet that includes the video’s lyrics (one is provided for each piece). The title character, a munitions worker, wants to learn a trade “so [she] could be a traitor.” She meets Jack, a sailor (played by Reid Kelley in drag), and with “passions inflamed,” she requests rousing war stories. His sung reply: “Calm down sweetheart / Britannia rules the waves.” In pledging herself to him, she offers her “surplus devotion,” and after their off-camera tryst, she sings, “The stains on my sheets / will come out with some lemon / I know that you care / by these Marx on my Lenin.” Live action alternates with stop-motion animation in which dancing refrigerator magnet-style letters spell out the dialogue or toy with it, as when “surplus devotion” is anagrammatized into “spurs devolution.”
More somber, The Queen’s English (4 minutes, 20 seconds), 2009, features a nurse who observes the demise of a soldier at the Western Front in 1915. She speaks in front of a drawn backdrop of a ward where soldiers are represented as primary shapes in beds, alluding at once to Analytical Cubism and to contemporary descriptions of men as interchangeable cogs in the war machine. The nurse’s monologue is marked by sad allusions to Humpty Dumpty and grisly references to decomposing flesh, and also by anachronistic humor, as when she professes to love the soldier “the way a Dutchman loves a dike / the way a woman needs a man / that needs a fish that needs a bike.” When he died, she explains, “I laid him, gently / in a Marquee piece of sod.”
One might want to read these pieces as sardonic commentary on current wars, but Reid Kelley’s interest seems to be primarily in historical material, expressed in details such as the patriotic flyers that hang on the walls behind Sadie and Jack when they meet, which urge citizens to conserve food and to fight for king and country. Her fine ear for popular verse makes Reid Kelley’s work rich fun for those who are, as Jack describes himself, “verbally inclined.”
Photo: Mary Reid Kelley: Sadie, the Saddest Sadist, 2009, video, appros. 7 1/2 minutes; at Fredericks & Freiser.