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Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley in Artnews

By Sarah Douglas, Maximilíano Durón, Alex Greenberger, Tessa Solomon

For artists who make a practice of collaboration, sometimes it takes just one project to change how they work together. Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley have been life partners since 2002, and artistic collaborators since 2008. Their surrealistic films, rich in wordplay and historical references, blend performance and animation; they star Reid Kelley as all the characters, and early on, the couple attributed the artworks solely to her. As Kelley’s involvement became more crucial, however, they began to cosign the works. Their most recent project, a commission for Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, relied to a greater degree on Kelley’s role as director, and made the two artists think differently about their process.

The Gardner gave the two artists a monthlong residency in the fall of 2019, and asked them to create an artwork in response to Titian’s painting The Rape of Europa to show in an upcoming retrospective. The Titian painting shows Zeus, as a bull, abducting Europa, who lies astride his back. “It’s just one of those incredible works,” said Reid Kelley, “where the more you look at it, the more it reveals, the more your perspective evolves.”

The film they created alternates between two settings. One of them looks like a stage for amateur actors, on which female characters from throughout history (all played by Reid Kelley) mime actions while a voiceover speaks limericks describing those characters. The other setting is an animated re-creation of the Gardner’s courtyard, where Europa (also Reid Kelley) responds to the limericks with a kind of pun called a Tom Swifty.

Usually, their process in making a film starts with Reid Kelley formulating both the subject and the script; Kelley then uses that as the basis for a cinematic concept. Since the new work was a commission, however, “we were both very much in on the ground floor of the collaboration,” Reid Kelley said. Kelley created a “church basement–type set” for the historical women, but re-creating the Gardner’s courtyard had a different level of complexity. Setting the film in the courtyard was crucial, Reid Kelley said, because they wanted it to “not just respond to this isolated masterwork, but also to the ideas of what a museum is.” Titian’s painting, she said, “is about the true foundations of civilization: theft, violence, coercion, and displacement. And there is a growing consciousness that that is what museums are showing us.”

To create that kind of resonance, Kelley turned, for the first time, to a handheld camera. “When you see that kind of shot,” he said, “it has this grounding in news footage and naturalism.” Meanwhile, Kelley’s role changed in an even more significant way. With Reid Kelley playing more characters than usual, he began to direct her more actively. “It dawned on us that we had to take better advantage of the perspective he has as director,” Reid Kelley said.

Added Kelley, “Every time we collaborate, there’s an element of evolution in our process.”

Reid Kelley said the couple still runs into the problem of people wanting to attribute the films to her alone. “People ideologically want and prefer a single author. People correctly identify the work as feminist and want a single female author.” —Sarah Douglas