What makes a hero has changed since the beginnings of this country, and not for the better. That's the underlying message of the photographs in Joshua Reiman's "Washington Series," the larger part of his current exhibit, entitled "Thug League," at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington. At first glance the 13, 30-inch-square color prints are amusing. Five Caucasian guys in glossy white basketball uniforms, gold chains and -- huh? -- 18th-century powdered wigs act out stereotypic pro-athlete scenarios: chest-thumping before the game, tussling with a referee, leaping Air Jordan-style for a slam dunk, riding in a white Hummer limousine.
But there's an historic twist that explains the wigs and gives these quirky narratives a satiric punch. The series loosely references events in the life of George Washington, Revolutionary War general and president number-one of the United States.
"I'm interested in history, and in Washington as the first American hero, an icon of where we came from," explains Reiman, a 33-year-old Greensboro-based artist, carpenter and contractor. "I did this series in May 2001. Heroes then were sports stars and rap artists. After 9/11, for a time our heroes were firefighters, police, etc., but now we seem to be reverting back to sports and rap." Reiman believes "blending all these things together . . . can say something pretty powerful if you can figure it out."
The titles help. "Cannot Tell a Lie" -- a close-up of modern-day George against a cherry-tree background -- is based on the apocryphal story that every American schoolchild learns. In exterior and interior views of "Crossing the Delaware," the teammates hang in their limo, which is driving over an actual bridge that crosses the Delaware River. In "Outside the Battle of Trenton," the five faux players -- Reiman and four of his buds -- appear to be psyching themselves up for a big game; the photo's title, of course, refers to Washington's pivotal rout in the fight for independence from the British.
Prior to their own "battle," Reiman's blinged-out warriors are "crossing the Delaware in style, without a worry," he suggests. "Today we're just kind of floating through like we're on top of the world, with all the jewels and cars; we're living in this society and it's so great, but at the same time we're not aware of all these other things going on. I wonder," he muses, "what our forefathers would think if they could see the way we live now?"
Reiman is Washington in these photographs, but his customized, human-hair wig is braided into cornrows and his mouth displays a "grill," a.k.a. 14-carat gold caps on his teeth. He confesses the dental work -- part of his costume -- set him back a grand.
Such rigorous detail shows up elsewhere as well, elevating Reiman's artwork above the sea of ironic statements about pop culture that washes over much contemporary art. The frames are beautifully handcrafted -- in cherry wood, natch -- and along their bottom edges Washington's signature is inlaid in rhinestones; the basketball uniforms are custom-made; the floor of the Firehouse is taped to resemble the lines on a basketball court, with a large vinyl laminate of the team's logo -- a pair of cherries -- at center court. The double-cherries, while a sly reference back to George's tree, are also a recent pop-culture symbol and unavoidably resemble the other kind of balls. Those innocent-looking fruit, in other words, are code for testosterone, which seems to play a suspiciously large role in hero worship regardless of century, race or class.
In pulling "Thugs" together, Reiman relied on a team of friends: to pose in the pictures, and to handle makeup, costumes, lights and, well, the camera. That's right, Reiman himself is not the photographer; he earned a degree in sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1995. To be sure, the images and everything within them are his ideas, but he is performing in the photographs, not taking them. In this way his work is more akin to film, with Reiman in the roles of director, set designer and actor.
"Washington Series" is clever and cynical but not, ultimately, moralizing; viewers see what they will in the images. Reiman's seven-photo "Blackbeard Series," in the Firehouse Gallery's back room, is even more cryptic, re-imagining the life and death of Edward Teach, or Blackbeard. Forget Johnny Depp; this early-18th-century pirate of the Caribbean was far more fearsome. Reiman says he's been fascinated with the character since reading about him in a book he received as a child. "It talked about Black- beard being this crazy guy who would set his own hair on fire and scare people," he says. "Some people think he never actually did any battles, because he was such a master of the mind, people would just give up at the sight of him." Perhaps so, but written legends of the pirate do include adjectives such as "murderous" and "cruel."
Reiman, who dons a wild black wig and beard, foul-looking fake teeth and a historically precise outfit to play pirate, looks suitably terrifying in the large color images, especially in the setting where he's wielding a torch and wearing two blown-glass pistols around his neck -- Reiman made those, too. These photos were shot on St. John. Several of them are blurry close-ups; one includes a bald, white-bearded denizen of the island known only as David, who agreed to let the Blackbeard crew use his boat for the shoot. "He just happened to be the right person to be in the photo," Reiman says. "He made that boat out of shipwrecks he's found around the world."
The frames, too, are works of art, cast with a gypsum-cement product and painted a glossy purple. Each of these features a skull and crossbones and the date 1718 -- the year Blackbeard was captured and killed by the colonial government. For a couple of years prior, he managed to spread terror along the North American coast and down to the Caribbean islands.
One of the most compelling images is unpeopled, just an atmospheric "still life" of sun-bleached driftwood on a littered beach. In the final frame, Blackbeard, who was hanged and decapitated in real life, meets a gentler fate floating out to sea. "Maybe it's the way he would have liked to die," suggests Reiman. He otherwise does not romanticize his subject; Blackbeard looks no better, or worse, than history has painted him.
What does Reiman mean for viewers to read into his tableaux? "I don't know . . . whatever," he says elusively. "I'd be lucky if they made up something to take away."