Unhairy Carey

His body shaven and painted silver, photographer Bob Carey explores upside-down syndrome

Tempe photographer Bob Carey will do almost anything for art. He willingly shaves his entire body, slathers it with silver paint, tightly wraps his torso, thighs and head in fishing line, garrots his genitalia and pastes clear plastic dots over his skull (ears and lips included). He's also photographed himself as a cone-capped Christ, a stuffed-cheeked Godfather, a naked, paunchy Elvis and a desperate dinosaur.

The strange fruit of Carey's latest labors appear in "Bob Carey," an exhibition of the photographer's most recent output at the Arizona State University Art Museum's Experimental Gallery at Matthews Center.

Using himself as a model -- and often as a canvas -- Carey has produced large-scale, photographic self-portraits in what has become his easily identifiable signature style: a vignetted, lone figure or head isolated against a pure white background in which foreboding black shadows bleed into lighter areas.

Carey Notion: Jennifer, is not a creature from the Star Wars bar scene -- it's Bob Carey's eyes and brow, upside down.
photo courtesy of artist
Carey Notion: Jennifer, is not a creature from the Star Wars bar scene -- it's Bob Carey's eyes and brow, upside down.
Carey used fishing line on himself to achieve the effect of Wrapped Ham
photo courtesy of artist
Carey used fishing line on himself to achieve the effect of Wrapped Ham

That distinctive sheen glowing from Carey's face and body in his black-and-white photos comes from the silver mica paint with which the artist covers his fully shaved body before most of his shoots. But it's the head-on collision between Bob Carey's clean, well-manicured style and his messier masochistic subject matter that creates the sensation that you're seeing evidence of the torture of the kindly Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

A cross between a religious experience and an anxiety attack, Carey's newest images can be confusing, not to mention unsettling. That's because a number of them were shot while Carey dangled upside down from a special harness rigged with boots and safety lines. He designed and built it himself using an industrial hoist.

"We have a couple of spotters making sure the lines are correctly attached, so I don't fall on my head and break my neck," says Carey of his unorthodox poses.

What ultimately results from all these contortions is human flesh graphically twisted and prodded by the pull of gravity. In the process, disorienting psychological distortion appears as well. In one untitled image in the ASU show, Carey, eyes closed as if in death, his face bloated, clutches helplessly at his chest with crossed arms. In Ball 1, the artist, hands raised to his mouth, seems to stifle a scream as a ball magically mushrooms from his head like a miniature atomic blast. Head, an enormous photo mosaic covering the main wall of the gallery, captures Carey's head as it seems to swell to unnatural proportions, while his frightened eyes bore into the viewer.

The artist also shrewdly manipulates our expectations of reality in Jennifer, a close-up of what appears to be a creepy, reptile-skinned extraterrestrial. The bug-eyed creature, with its pursed lips and receding nose, is nothing more than Carey's face, eyebrows shaved and skin silvered, shot upside down.

By his own admission, Carey's photographs, a skillful blend of performance and visual art, probe the netherworld of pain, both physical and mental. At their most successful, they straightforwardly deal with human pain thresholds. They also grapple with naked vulnerability -- literally and figuratively.

"It seems like somewhere in each shooting experience, there's an amount of real discomfort or a level at which we need to stop, back off and come back a little bit," the photographer explains. "It's all kind of centered around pain, whether it's my own physical pain or the music we're playing while we work that drives us insane, because we play the same track over and over again turned up loud for three hours. I've had assistants just go crazy. But for me, it's like I'm in church."

A commercial photographer who stumbled into fine art after the death of his mother five years ago, Carey is candid about the initial impetus for his work.

"I was unconsciously feeling a lot of angst -- the old death-of-my-mother story. I was using monofilament one day for a commercial photograph. I knew my face, which is pretty pliable, was getting bigger and bigger. I went into the studio bathroom and starting wrapping [the plastic line] around my head as I was looking in the mirror.

"The first thing I thought of was wrapping up a big-breasted woman with it, but wrapping my face made me feel a little more comfortable because I was being held together. But the more I was being held together, the more painful it became because of the physical aspects of the wire cutting into your skin."

Carey exploded into tears; he then photographed his bound head, which resembled a pineapple -- a psychologically apt image considering that "pineapple" is also military slang for hand grenade. Pineapple was the precursor to Wrapped Ham, a photo in the exhibition in which the intrepid artist's head appears shorn, silvered and painfully bound.

Carey, whose long list of commercial clients includes Del Webb, Lexus, US West, General Electric and Teva sport sandals, claims that the process involved in making his fine artwork has taken on a quality approaching religious ritual for him: "To me, my studio -- and especially the big white wall in my studio -- is where everything is done. I print on my white wall, I shoot on my white wall, I do almost every image on that wall . . . it seems like an altar. I feel like the images aren't as good when they're not done on the wall."

Even his long-suffering studio assistant, Jackie Mercandetti, has taken on a talismanic aura.

"A lot of the images are done in tandem with Jackie," Carey says. "I wonder sometimes whether, when she's not able to do this with me anymore, the work is going to stop."

If nothing else, Mercandetti deserves bonus pay for some of the odder rituals she's been required to perform for Carey, who has no qualms about being photographed nude.

"I shave places I can reach," says Carey of the tedious shearing ritual required before most shoots. "My wife, Linda, or my assistant, Jackie, shaves where I can't. If I'm really hairy all over, it probably takes four or five hours straight."

For the Matthews Center exhibition, Carey also made the leap from still to video work, producing his first short 16 mm film, which was converted to digital video and titled East/West. In an endlessly repeating black-and-white clip several minutes long, the ample artist, naked, barefoot, painted and equipped with ear gear resembling alien life forms, runs on a rutted dirt road in the desolation of the desert somewhere past Pinnacle Peak. Lumbering toward the camera, he begins to cry, flounders, then falls to the ground.

"We did a total of seven takes for the video," Carey reports. "During the take we finally used, I wrenched my bad knee during one run, so that's why it looks like I'm in a little more pain than normal."

Carey's deceptively simple short required a full crew of 15 and sophisticated equipment to produce.

"We had a motor home and a makeup artist, a location scout, a camera operator, a director and two monitors, one in the back of the truck that moved as I moved. The most archaic device we had -- since we didn't have a steady cam, a very expensive piece of cinematic equipment -- was a bungee cam the crew rigged up using four rubber bungee cords attached to the camera mount. The camera remains completely steady, even though we were going down a bumpy dirt road."

The fine-arts efforts of Bob Carey, a native Arizonan, have not gone unnoticed in the international art world, a community ordinarily disdainful of those in the commercial realm trying to cross over into the fine-arts arena. Besides museum shows in Arizona, Carey's work has been shown at Galerie Callu Merite in Paris, where controversial artist/photographer Joel-Peter Witkin first saw it. An eccentric master of the morbid with weighty museum credentials to match, Witkin specializes in stunning, overtly religious photographic tableaux featuring, in his words, "the damaged, unclean, dysfunctional or wretched." (A call for models once made by Witkin asked for "women whose faces are covered with hair or large skin lesions and who are willing to pose in evening gowns" and "anyone bearing the wounds of Christ.")

Witkin was especially taken with Carey's Floral Series -- photos in which Carey binds, hides and ties his genitalia into forms suggestive of flowers. So Witkin picked Carey to participate in an all-expenses-paid, weeklong seminar that the controversial artist held in September at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Carey shrugs off the honor with an embarrassed smile.

"My Floral Series was one of Joel-Peter Witkin's favorites. I did it as an investigation, but I also did it to stir things up a little bit, just to piss people off. Everybody investigates their body in their own little ways, but they never tell anybody that. It's one of those hidden things that everybody's done, but they sure as hell won't tell anybody.

"Most of my work is not intended or designed to shock," adds Carey. "It's innocent investigation."

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