Dzama, a Canadian-born artist who is best known for Surrealist-inspired drawings and dioramas that blend an apparent childlike innocence with scenes of mayhem, dismemberment, and gore, here channeled such early modernist spectacles as Picasso’s collaborations with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, Oskar Schlemmer’s 1922 Triadic Ballet and, a bit later, Dalí’s unforgettable dream sequences for Hitchcock. This kind of multimedia extravaganza is becoming ever more commonplace in an art world where distinctions between entertainment, popular culture, performance art, and theater are becoming harder and harder to parse. Recent seasons have seen similarly ambitious productions from artists like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, William Kentridge, and Matthew Barney. In the hands of these artists, outmoded genres like the Western, the silent film, the folk tale, the horror flick, film noir, and vaudeville are exploited for their essential surrealism, and with anachronism serving as a portal for a sideways look at the changes that are roiling us all.
But while such spectacles often draw on art history and mildly discredited forms of popular entertainment to make oblique commentaries about our own time, it is clear the history means something rather different from opposite sides of the gender divide. Male artists, such as those mentioned above, often replicate the unequal positions of the sexes that are integral to their source materials. Women artists delving into this territory are more likely to rework and reinvent old genres to cast light on their problematic roles in the past and present.
The films are largely confined to black and white, with costumes, sets, and props that, even if ready-made, are outlined in thick black lines that give them a cartoonish quality. The characters wear homemade masks or faces painted white with eggs propped in their eye sockets, emphasizing a weirdly skull-like aspect. The narratives are dominated by chatter, as characters spout rapid-fire and often hilarious monologues rife with puns and rhymes. In an interview with blogger Tyler Green, Reid Kelley notes that she uses these devices to undermine the logic of language, embedding a betrayal of meaning in the spoken texts that mirrors the betrayal of reason portrayed in her narratives.
To date, she has completed seven films. The earliest are very short and based on women on the frontlines of World War I, among them a nurse and a munitions worker. These culminated in the more elaborate You Make Me Iliad (2010), which focuses on a female sex worker at the front. Discovering that the primary sources about prostitution in the Great War were all written by men, Reid Kelley accompanied her heroine’s commentary with that of a male soldier and a medical officer who monitored the brothels. Here, as elsewhere in her work, Reid Kelley transforms rather grim source material into playfully satirical skits that mock the unbalanced power structures and stilted gender roles that confine her characters.
Feeling the need to give her heroine more agency, Reid Kelley transported her to the French demimonde in The Syphilis of Sisyphus (2011). 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.
Priapus Agonistes presents sexual politics seen through the simultaneous lens of Greek mythology, 1950s-era American Christianity, and Victorian prudery. History serves as a distorted mirror to suggest the misogyny also at work in contemporary society. And indeed, that is the message that runs through all Reid Kelley’s films.
Politics are more sublimated in the multimedia presentations of Los Angeles–based artist, musician, and performer Marnie Weber. She is less interested in history per se than in the themes of female repression and liberation and the dark workings of the unconscious as they manifest themselves in art, fairytales, mythology, and fantasy. Weber’s work draws on the language of punk rock, Halloween, and spiritualism, which was, of course, another early modernist obsession. Using a mix of digital, Super 8, and 16-millimeter film, she produces what she refers to as “moving dreamscapes” in which spirits, monsters, humans, and animals mingle in evocative environments where spatial, temporal, and psychic boundaries have dissolved.
The Spirit Girls began as video personages, but they eventually became actual performers before being laid to rest twice, once on film and once in Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, California, where, dressed in animal costumes, they played before a live audience. Following their demise, Weber has continued to explore the female transformation in allegorical tales of sexual and psychic awakening. Eternal Heart (2010) adopts the silent-film format complete with text panels and bleeds, flickers, and other distortions designed to evoke a vintage film rescued from oblivion. It tells the tale of a young girl who escapes her oppressive home life through death, where she finds kindred spirits among the strange hybrid creatures of the afterworld.
In 2012, Weber presented a new film at Marc Jancou in New York. Like the films in Reid Kelley’s retrospective, The Night of Forevermore was screened in an installation filled with props, collages, and costumed effigies. It takes its cues from Hieronymus Bosch and Henry Fuseli, whose paintings seem at times to come alive in the film. It presents a coming-of-age story about a young girl (played by Weber’s daughter, Colette Rose Shaw) who encounters monsters, demons, and hallucinogenic creatures, including a sinister old witch played by Weber herself, as she travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven. While the first two realms are full of dark shadows, heaven is blindingly white, though even here dreams become nightmares. Weber notes that it is meant to resemble a crack den where our heroine is caught between good and evil. She is working on two related productions that will extend this narrative into a feature-length film.
Weber’s interest in spiritualism underscores an interesting paradox. Belief in the occult and exploration of paranormal phenomena like ghosts, fairies, mesmerism, and telepathy exploded in the early 20th century in tandem with the rise of new technologies and interest in scientific explanations of physical phenomena. Far from being the antitheses they appear to be today, materialistic and spiritual understandings were regarded as equally valid responses to the upending of tradition. Weber sees the rise of spiritualism as a moment of liberation for women, who were often the practitioners, and humanity in general, as people threw off the belief in an omnipotent god to seek truth within themselves.
For Reid Kelley and Weber, the historical association between women and irrationality makes this artistic language doubly potent. They reclaim the realm of dream and fantasy to point the way forward to a more egalitarian reality.
Eleanor Heartney is a New York–based art critic and author of numerous books about contemporary art.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 70 under the title “Sex, Mayhem, and Ghosts of the Unconscious.”