The starring ballerina is the same in all fourteen of the mysterious color photographs hanging in Bokeh Gallery, Wayne Rainey's newest downtown Phoenix gallery venture dedicated solely to photographic art. Hairy barrel chest. Close-cropped haircut. Pink, stiff tulle tutu. Big muscular wrestler's calves ending in big, slightly flat, bare feet.
Artist/photographer Bob Carey portrays the ballsy ballerina in each image on display from his "Ballerina Series," an arduous, on-going project seven years in the making. And I mean ballsy both literally and figuratively.
Carey, a native Phoenician who has done high-profile commercial photographic work for over 20 years, now lives and works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York, in an old, brick industrial building dating back to 1865. He was first reincarnated into his highly recognizable danseuse persona back in 2002, after being enlisted for a pro bono campaign for the Arizona Ballet while he was still living in Tempe. "They asked a handful of artists in Phoenix to do their interpretation of what ballet means to them," he recalls.
At the time, Carey had gained notoriety for his large-scale, black and white silver gelatin prints in which he, with the help of his wife, Linda, or his female studio assistant, Jackie Mercandetti, shaved his entire body (yes, including those delicate Brazilian wax areas), covered himself in silver mica paint (including his face) and posed in unlikely, nay, borderline dangerous, sometimes trussed positions that pushed him both physically and psychically to a jagged edge. I wrote a review of his very first museum exhibition at ASU Art Museum back in 1999, knowing that this guy had his photographic finger on the pulse of something quite remarkable. The suffocating sense of excruciating isolation and raw emotion that emanated like lethal radiation from his work was both palpable and poignant.
For the Arizona Ballet piece, Carey appeared, completely shaven and slathered in silver, in a ballerina's tutu, the perfect Po-mo Pierrot clown character, profoundly tragic and comedic all at once. It would be the very first of over 150 different images, all set in wildly divergent locations, that the artist would create from 2002 -- when he and his spouse decided to move lock, stock and barrel, including a van and two dogs, to New York -- to the present.
Though there seem to be different factors at play in the "Ballerina Series," the crux of Carey's oeuvre remains the same: that consciousness of terrifying loneliness in a seemingly infinite world. While his older work was in black and white laboriously captured on expensive film in highly controlled studio conditions, his latest work is in luscious color -- and all but a few images have been taken with a budgetarily kind, digital medium format camera in outdoor locations across the country that range from the sandy shores of Coney Island to a verdant Arcadian pasture filled with curious cows. The artist is still obsessed with perfect lighting, so his van is always filled with lighting equipment, should ambient lighting on location not be to his liking.
With very few exceptions, Carey is the solitary human presence in each of his frames. Even in Times Square, in which the artist lies in the middle of a busy crosswalk in New York City's Times Square while passersby snap pictures of him with cameras and cell phones, he is painfully alone, perhaps waiting for Godot.
For the sake of his latest art, Carey is still pushing the proverbial envelope. He's swung from the limbs of a tree, climbed a fake fiberglass palm, executed a balletic third position barefoot in the middle of a blinding snow storm on a Brooklyn street, jumped open-armed on the deck of a fog-bound ferry, and laid limply, as if crucified, on the hot asphalt of an ASU parking lot at night.
On a number of occasions, Carey has been accosted by generally amiable police called by concerned onlookers ("I always lift my tutu and show them I have both underwear and pink shorts underneath; I also have my portfolio of ballerina shots within reach to show them what I'm doing.") or by security staff baffled by a hairy guy in a pink tutu doing something not usually seen in the ordinary course of a day. The artist's unending back stories to each photo are as engaging as the images themselves.
Not unlike his black and white silver prints, Bob Carey's ballerina C-prints are ethereally beautiful, with backdrops not immediately identifiable. The various landscapes in which the artist places himself and his tutu are catholic in the most universal meaning of the word. Carey's work is not only about isolation, but also about perception -- his own, as well as that of others: "I've only been called a faggot or homo three times in 7 years, so that's, like, not bad. That one piece of material [his pink tulle tutu] can change everybody's perceptions. If you're just a little bit different -- everyone wears clothes, but if the clothes are different, then [other people] have their own judgment."
Recently, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, in a lengthy essay, lamented "the sea of sameness" currently being shown by many museums. "What's missing," she writes, "is art made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand." The ballerina photographs of Bob Carey easily fill that gaping void.
Carey's photos will be on display at Bokeh Gallery until April 15. Bokeh Gallery is located in the Monorchid building, 214 East Roosevelt Street; gallery is open First and Third Fridays of each month and by appointment. For a private showing, call Jacques at (480) 280-8000.
For a sampling of some of the photos in the "Ballerina Series," many of which are not in the Bokeh show, check out Carey's website.