evan moffitt

Month: June, 2015


Hammer Museum

Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley, still from Priapus Agonistes, 2013. Single-channel HD video, black and white, sound. 15:09 min. Courtesy of the artists; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, New York; and Pilar Corrias, London.

Published in SFAQ, June 2015

“What god is this that drives thee without sail

Before the wild winds of a wandering will

Thro’ salt sea-storms of soul’s distemperature…?”

                       -Algernon Charles Swinburne, Pasiphae

The self has never been stable. Unmoored from all certainty, tossed about in a sea of shifting passions, it is privy to “wandering will[s]” and fleeting fancies. So are the characters in Mary Reid Kelley’s trio of films currently on view at the Hammer Museum: Priapus Agonistes (2013), Swinburne’s Pasiphae (2014), and The Thong of Dionysus (2015). Figures from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur leap to life, their fears and frenzies less archaic than contemporary. Using an eclectic stew of references in language, costume, and set decoration, Reid Kelley transposes ancient attitudes to our present moment, revealing enduring facets of human subjectivity.

In all three films, a highly stylized black-and-white aesthetic transforms Minoan frescoes into living cartoons with the look of punk zine illustrations. Those familiar with Reid Kelley’s films will recognize her limited palette, painted masks, visual and linguistic puns, and comical allusions to classical mythology from past works like You Make Me Iliad (2010) and The Syphilis of Sisyphus (2011). For her project at the Hammer, Kelley painted and sculpted each prop and set piece by hand, their bold contours creating a backdrop of brilliant contrast, like the tales on Greek amphorae. The objects were arranged in front of a green screen that artist Patrick Kelley used to create composite images of various characters, all played by Reid Kelley herself. This high-contrast world is the setting for mercurial passions, their shifting gradients amplified by the physical absence of color.

The films tell the story of the Minotaur, Ariadne, and Pasiphae from three different perspectives. In the original Greek myth, when King Minos fails to sacrifice a beautiful bull to Poseidon, the sea god curses Queen Pasiphae to couple with the animal. The union produces the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, who is locked in a labyrinth and fed an annual tribute of fifty Athenian men and women. Athens’ greatest warrior, Theseus, travels to Minos to battle the beast and free his people from innocent slaughter. With help from Ariadne, the neglected daughter of Minos, Theseus kills the Minotaur and sails off for his home polis.

In a comically contemporary update, Reid Kelley’s trilogy opens on an indoor volleyball court, where rival church teams face off to determine which loser will be sacrificed to the Minotaur, who lurks below the gym floor. Theseus is reincarnated here as Priapus, the setter for Athens Baptist, whose one eye and fruit-filled jockstrap identify him as the Greek god of the phallus, masculinity in its purest form. After defeating a gaggle of mime-like players wearing the mute masks of a Greek drama chorus, the action cuts to Queen Pasiphae, a Cleopatra-Bo Derek hybrid with blonde beaded braids, who suns herself in a checkered onesie beneath a grape-laden trellis. There the conceited queen insults jealous Venus, who Reid Kelley plays with the face of a pug (“Venus, you’re half-shill, half-shell;/A fallen Avon goddess who can’t sell/Beauty to a pig. Your crap lip glosses/Didn’t put me on the throne of Knossos.”). In retaliation, Venus curses Pasiphae to love a bull (“We have our beef! And I am vowed,/Proud Pasiphae, to make you cowed.”). A volley of bawdy puns makes the dialogue’s sestet form refreshingly humorous, the Greek goddess and queen throwing shade in the meter of classic poetry. Reid Kelley plays them both with high-pitched, flat American accents, recalling the “valley girl” tones of not a few Real Housewives.

In Reid Kelley’s version, the Minotaur is a pitiable creature, neglected by her parents to aimlessly wander cinderblock corridors forever. Dressed in a flesh-toned body suit and paper shopping bag—with cartoonish eyes, snout and horns poking out—Reid Kelley stalks sand-filled service tunnels, unable to read wall messages scrawled in blood. Her “friends” are the skeletal remains of Athenians she’s forgotten she ate. Hungry only for company and familial acceptance, the Minotaur wonders why she must suffer such a fate: “I’m as beloved as I am unique/And he who calls me outcast is a liar/Sick with envy over my immortal blood!” Reid Kelley suspends her humor for a moment to relish over the strange. The Minotaur, for her, is a metaphor for human beauty, a physical aberration that reflects the dazzlingly diverse perversities of desire.

Kelley’s transgressive project extends understanding for sexual taboos and illicit pleasures still considered incompatible with the aims and interests of present society. As a literary mouthpiece for this tolerance-expanding enterprise, Kelley turns to Algernon Charles Swinburne, the famed 19th-century poet whose classical poems and dramas have fallen into relative obscurity. Swinburne was a notorious hedonist, his drunken escapades the subject of many sensationalistic London paper reports. Tales of barroom debauchery and bestiality may have been invented; they certainly mythologized the Romantic poet, whose sexually suggestive style made him a cultural revolutionary in the austere moral climate of his time. But Swinburne also practiced what Catherine Maxwell has called “literary sadomasochism;” he saw “the transmutative activity of form as a liberating violence, binding and disciplining language and yet also releasing its energy. Form gives language its teeth so that the finished poem is itself a pleasurable violence exerted on the sensibility of the reader.”[1]

Swinburne’s Pasiphae was never published; the subject of bestiality, and the author’s refusal to voice disapproval for the act through his characters, made it too salacious for print. Reid Kelley recites the recently released dialogue between Pasiphae and Daedalus in her trilogy’s middle film, Swinburne’s Pasiphae. The inventor happily facilitates the queen’s sexual escapades, creating a wooden cow facsimile to enable the bovine seduction. Swinburne’s positive tone gives the reader poetic sympathy for the queen. One the one hand, read to a small and private male audience, Pasiphae’s “cock-crazy” language may have expressed what men felt was representative of women’s genuine yearning for the phallus, a hypersexualized account that serviced male fantasies of female pleasure in domination. On the other hand, this poetic sympathy transgressively places the (male) reader in the position of penetrated Pasiphae, expanding his awareness of the bounds of human sexuality and the liberating possibilities of perverse pleasures.

Just as the wooden cow becomes a vessel for Pasiphae and her desires, so Pasiphae becomes a vessel for Swinburne and Reid Kelley. The film historically resituates sexual taboos by addressing the Dionysian perversity of classical mythology and culture, where bestiality, sadomasochism, and gay sex are common subjects of interest and desire. In Reid Kelley’s work, as in Swinburne’s, form reflects content;

the sting of rhyming poetry is a pleasurable pain that bridges the archaic and the contemporary. By quoting Victorian verse and employing its rhythmic forms, Reid Kelley resists the familiar fetishization of classical culture. Sexual diversity is timeless in her work, a feature not just of ancient Greece or contemporary life, but of Swinburne’s era and all those in between. As James Cahill has argued, “art needs to err—against taste, against conventional morality, and ultimately against its own elaborate devices and affectations—in order to grasp the most fugitive aspects of human thought and experience.”

The myth’s episodic family drama feels familiar, like a season of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Kelley’s stylistic references are as eclectic as Swinburne’s literary allusions, with the sexually frenzied Pasiphae assuaging her illicit yearnings with pills, alcohol, and the comfort of lifestyle gossip magazines (“I AMPHORA NEW ROMANCE”, one title declares). In the trio’s final film, The Thong of Dionysus, Kelley alights in the alliterative (“Ewer the people implacably plagued by/perpetual pupal putrescence”) and delights in the delinquent: in the labyrinth Priapus falls for the Minotaur’s corpse, drastically altering the myth’s conclusion, marrying bestiality and necrophilia with a lyrical soliloquy of love. The film—and the trilogy—ends in the wine-god’s “Disco Tent”, the maenads and Ariadne dancing aimlessly under the light of a mirrorball. Their closing chorus recalls the “salt sea-storms” of Swinburne’s Pasiphae: “We pass all the nights in our Disco Tent,/In our bedlam we toss and turn,/In truth, we don’t sleep, we just lie on the sheet,/And our Disco Tents never adjourn.”

Whether sailing across the stormy Aegean, strolling through the streets of Victorian London, or dancing in a modern-day discotheque, we are perpetually unfixed by our passions. In an age where religious piety strikes an all-time low, our mores have become apocalyptic hedonism, the existential challenge of ethical self-determination so great it’s been cast to the wind. In Kelley’s work our current rudderlessness isn’t far from the ancient Greeks’ bacchanalian submission to divine fate or the Romantics’ obsession with death and decay. All we’ve ever had are our desires to guide us, like a thread through the labyrinth of the soul.

[1] Catherine Maxwell, Swinburne (Tavistock: Norcote House, 2006), 21.



Regen Projects, Los Angeles


Published in San Francisco Arts Quarterly, May 2015

To dive into the work of Raymond Pettibon is to dive into the heart of darkness. That darkness is the heart of America. Over three decades, Pettibon has completed over 20,000 unique drawings of a range of subjects, from the wistfully existential to the fatuously pop. His new exhibition at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, From my bumbling attempt to write a disastrous musical, these illustrations muyst suffice, addresses favorite Pettibon themes like surf culture, rock n’ roll, baseball, the U.S. military, politics, and film noir, as well as familiar characters like George W. Bush, Joan Crawford, and Gumby, all rendered with brush and ink in comic-strip style. As Benjamin Buchloh has argued, in the work, the celebrity image and commodity cult of America are cast back to the viewer in a distorted mirror. Through this glass, Pettibon reflects us darkly, not as we would like to see ourselves, but as we truly are.

Like many of his prior gallery shows, Pettibon’s latest exhibition features recently completed work. A wide variety of drawings and collages in both black-and-white and color were all completed this year. As pudding proof of Pettibon’s prolific output, one gallery wall is dedicated entirely to drawings of Gumby, which were finished the day the exhibition opened. The show begins with a series of black-and-white panel drawings rendered in the cheerful style of Sunday “funnies.” But the disjointed narratives and vulgar dialogue in these strips are far from sanguine: long-forgotten characters from Charles Manson’s “family” chat in the nude about sex, murder, infantile drug abuse, and necrophilia. Some have read Pettibon’s frequent depictions of the Manson family as a disenchanted criticism of the failures of hippie culture, of its naïveté and hapless hive-mind that would spawn a class of silver-haired and silver-tongued Gordon Geckos not much more than a decade after the Helter Skelter murders. But the artist’s attitude towards the 1960s is complex, and like all his subjects Pettibon draws it with a certain critical detachment, creating what could be an illustrated guide to Joan Didion’s seminal essay on the San Francisco Acid Wave, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (yet with none of Didion’s Manhattanite censure).

Visiting the exhibition at Regen Projects is a bit like watching a book unfold before you—a graphic novel, perhaps—only to see the pages tear themselves from their binding, crumple, rip apart, and reassemble in new combinations of word and image. Pettibon began his career as a political cartoonist, and later as a maker of mimeographed serial zines, but he’s preserved little narrative continuity in his present practice. There’s a legend about William Burroughs cutting up newspaper strips high on junk in a Marrakesh apartment while writing Naked Lunch, and Pettibon’s work reads much the same way—though instead of newspapers, Pettibon clips from Marcel Proust, John Ruskin, Art Clokey, and Donald Judd.

The works at Regen Projects are tacked up casually on the wall, like the infamous posters Pettibon once designed for his older brother Greg’s band, the seminal punk group Black Flag, which were staple-gunned to telephone poles all over Hermosa Beach in the late 1970s. Through the graphic language of comic strips and the display format of DIY public notices, Pettibon’s work has retained a deeply democratic sensibility. His message is particularly accessible in the political drawings, where his desire to spread the ugly truth about American governance feels like an unassailable ethical priority. In several of these drawings, Barack Obama—now late into his Presidency—becomes a new target of Pettibon’s searing criticism, laid bare as an ineffectual rhetorician who continued the failed defense policies of his predecessor. In one drawing, George W. Bush throws Obama in a Hail Mary pass to a grieving mother. “I brought my successor with me this time,” reads the caption above Bush’s head as he bursts in through an open door. “Hope you’re OK with the company, ma’am. He’ll be spreading the good news from now on.” Clad in a Superman suit with one eye blackened by ink (gouged out by Kryptonite?), Obama drones a message of condolence like an action figure with a talking string: “Stay the course, that your son, Mrs. White, did not die in vain.” For those familiar with Pettibon’s vitriolic output during the height of the Iraq War, when he treated the Bush Administration like George Grosz did the bloated and war-mongering Prussians after World War I, this corner of the exhibition says much about Pettibon’s politics in a time of U.S. drone strikes and domestic counterterrorism abuses.

The most impressive pieces in the exhibition are large-scale paper and ink collages in the tradition of early Dada works by Richard Hamilton and Hannah Hoch. In a nod to Hamilton, some feature twisted and engorged bodies in athletic and erotic poses, seemingly drawn from pornographic videos and Olympic sport magazines. Hands, feet, eyes, and fingers all collaged to touch each other create a cacophony of human contact; their shorn paper edges and ink washes are colorful, chaotic, and sensual all at once. Like Hoch’s collaged indictments of toothless Weimar Republic leaders, Pettibon’s collages cut like a kitchen knife through the American promise of entertainment and consumption. The collision of so many dynamic drawings reminds us of the Brave New World side to this promise: in Pettibon’s America, pleasurable urges are satiated and servitude is assured.

Pettibon’s work originally reached the public as reproductions, Xeroxed and mimeographed in poster and zine form. This makes collage a natural turn, even though the artist’s cut-outs aren’t photographs and ads clipped from magazines, but original drawings, cut or torn and reassembled to form new aggregate compositions. In a way, Pettibon’s drawing process is a simulated collage, mirroring the cut-and-paste technique of postmodern novelists like Burroughs and Kathy Acker. He draws incessantly from television, magazines, newspapers, and the illustrations in pulp fiction detective novels, keeping “dead files” of images to revisit later. Like a magic sieve, Pettibon sifts through this stream of information to create final pairings of image and text, which bristle with characteristically dark and jagged humor.

At Regen Projects, Pettibon manages to sink us in a pit of existential despair, while just feet away he cracks us up with Gumby and the Cracker Jack Kids spouting sexual innuendos. That see-saw effect is part of his power, what Julia Kristeva has called a “dark caricature”—it draws us in with morbid and bemused fascination, at this twisted comedy called life. Cast through that strange distorted lens, the America that returns to the page and the gallery wall is itself distorted, yet somehow truer than its original form. A Frankenstein’s monster whose shape reflects not the literal body but its soul.