Winner of the Baloise Art Prize 2016.
The American artist Mary Reid Kelley studied painting, but quickly took up video art, a medium with an inexhaustible narrative potential, and has since developed a singular visual universe. Executed in an expressionist vein, her black-and-white films recall cinema’s early days. The expressive faces and stark contrasts of the German film director F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) immediately spring to mind. With the help of her partner Patrick Kelley, she creates her videos in their entirety, from writing the script to filming to editing, designing and making the accessories and costumes down to the last details. It is mainly Reid Kelley as well, in costume and skillfully made-up or disguised, who brings to life the various characters. She plays them within an historical or mythological framework, whether it is World War I, the French Revolution, or ancient Greece. While she treats a broad range of subjects, an interest in the place of women in history runs through her work, as well as a more general interest in the question of violence, power, and domination.
Her projects constitute a complete body of work that brings together film, theater, drawing, painting, and poetry; in each case they result from a long research process—historical, visual, and literary—that is bound up with the intense work that goes into the writing itself. Her ability to juggle words, her appetite for linguistic play, the poetic tone of the dialogues, and the attention paid to the scansion of the verses open multiple levels for reading her work, and pace the dramaturgy of her films. If the text forms an essential pivot in her work, she has also managed to invent a graphic language that is immediately recognizable, whether in her videos (her preferred form of expression) or in her photography. Deftly combining the falsely realist illusionism of her depictions with a form of exaggeration, the artist amplifies the features of her characters, who swing between tragedy and comedy.
Inventive, and displaying a consummate feel for the burlesque, over the years Mary Reid Kelley has built up a teeming gallery of characters that are largely fictional—even if they display numerous interconnections—but also very much from the real world, as can be seen with the portraits in the Baloise collection. These belong to a series of photographs shot in 2015 in which the artist depicts various personalities who have in one way or another influenced her relationship with language. Drawing on existing clichés, she reproduced three-dimensional busts, which she then photographed in black and white. The photographic portrait here makes a detour by way of modeling clay and painting before returning to the image. The painted faces reflect the artist’s formal vocabulary and her attraction to expressive physiognomies. Viewers will recognize the writers Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and T. S. Elliot, with their features heightened and wearing an engaging expression thanks especially to their intense gaze which is a result of their slightly enlarged eyes. Among these eminent literary figures, contemporary faces pop up unexpectedly, such as the American rap stars Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, whose virtuosity in rhyming is as much an inspiration for the artist as classic prose. This is one of the treasures found in the world created by Mary Reid Kelley. Drawing on both classical and popular cultures, she cheerfully shakes up codes, exercising great freedom along the way.