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Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley in Art in America

By Emily Watlington

A distressed white princess in tattered clothing waves a red scarf in the air as she is abducted on the back of a white bull. The bull, she’ll soon learn, is Zeus in disguise. He is taking her to Crete, where he will rape and impregnate her, then make her his queen. This Greek myth about the defenseless Phoenician mortal Europa—after whom the continent was likely named—is dramatized in one of the most famous paintings of all time, Titian’s The Rape of Europa, commissioned by King Phillip II of Spain in the sixteenth century. Since 1896, it has been part of the collection of famed Boston socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose museum currently displays all of Titian’s mythological poesie paintings, briefly reunited after four hundred years apart.

The myth glorified Europa’s noble defenselessness against the will of the gods. The implicit gender dynamic is pretty disgusting—rape is romanticized! To add an asterisk to this celebration of the painting, the Gardner invited the collaborative couple Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley to contribute a feminist reply. The duo’s works typically tell the stories of women throughout history, often creatively filling in the archive’s gaps, since few women had the chance to create art or write memoirs in prior centuries. In their response, a nine-minute video titled after Titian’s painting, the Kelleys are not content simply to point out that rape is bad—this sort of feminist criticism is obvious, and it’s depressing that it needs to be repeated. Instead, they concoct an absurdist portrait of white feminism in all its complex contradictions, showing how victimhood has at times been wielded for worse.

The work opens with a scene depicting the protagonist shortly after her rape. Her clothes are ripped to shreds, and she’s distracted by fear that she might be pregnant. As in all the Kelleys’ videos, the actress and her costume appear in white with harsh black outlines, and she inhabits a grayscale, computer-generated world—in this case, a room that resembles the Gardner’s Venetian courtyard, post-plunder. The video recalls the political cartoons of Revolutionary France, tackling real-world events with a heavy dose of caricature. The black-and-white palette lends a somber, historical veneer, but the DIY effects make it all outlandish.

While acknowledging the validity of Europa’s hurt, the Kelleys remind us that victim mentalities can be toxic. In their far-from-simplistic delve into Europa’s psyche, the mythic character delivers whiny lines that makes clear she hasn’t processed her trauma in a healthy way. In the scene where the otherwise obnoxious lady is most sympathetically portrayed, she’s trying to practice affirmations in the mirror but winds up yelling, heartbreakingly, “This is all your fault.” She doubles down on this self-hatred and relishes her newfound proximity to power, adopting Zeus’s misogyny by dismissing the societal contributions of women. Her outbursts are childish responses to history lesson vignettes, in which Reid Kelley speaks in limericks to tell stories of ancient women’s foundational inventions in and beyond Europe—including beer and needles. But the Kelleys’ protagonist brings everything back to herself, and she pooh-poohs most of these accomplishments. Upon being told that a Mosul woman invented yogurt, for instance, she says, effectively, so what? She retorts, in a very Karen kind of way, that she’s lactose intolerant (she doesn’t eat gluten, carbs, or mollusks either). In another clip, Europa passionately paints the phrase “I am a victem [sic]” on a canvas, giving the museum the take they probably expected, but with a misspelling that lends a wink and a nod. The Kelleys mock her self-centered wallowing with one limerick line about history’s first white lady, who “turned very brittle when not in the middle.”

The duo succeeds in countering history’s biases, showing that ancient women were not only victims, but innovators too. At the same time, they caricature the girl boss attitude that would have us believe entrepreneurial endeavors are enough to tip power imbalances. Humor is their primary weapon. The buffoonery common in limericks—which prioritize rhythm and rhyme over meaning—perfectly and playfully captures the contradictions of white feminism. The Kelleys’ video is a necessary update to the genre of “feminist response.”