I have an aversion to performance art that trumps my fears of eight-legged insects and meteor strikes combined. The concept conjures notions of naked recent graduates of adolescence arranging themselves in Abu Ghraib-like piles or digging in boxes of dirt, to an Edgard Varése soundtrack. So, when Gerard Rinaldi suggested at the outset of our conversation that his collection of photographs on display at Burlington's Fletcher Free Library could best be described as a "performance piece about death," I eyed a nearby bottle of Jack Daniels.
Rinaldi's exhibit, entitled "Playing Dead (The Do-Overs)," consists of 40 black-and-white photographs, originally taken in the late 1970s as a project funded by the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and last shown there in 1980. After recently rediscovering the photos, Rinaldi determined to digitally scan and expand them beyond their original resolution, as well as to colorize the images selectively.
The common factor in all of them is the splayed bodies: slumped over a car, arranged at the feet of horses, floating face-up in a swimming pool, lying in a street cratered with potholes. The bodies and some other elements are colored, with the surroundings remaining in black and white.
A closer look reveals that Rinaldi's apparent fascination with mortality comes with tongue planted firmly in cheek; several of the models in the photos are either smiling or laughing outright. To the artist, who has lived in Chelsea, Vermont, since 1994, encouraging his models to improvise and have fun with the concept of mimicking corpses was part of the idea when he first conceived the photos. Their attitude adds an element of performance to the straight photography.
"I directed [the models] a bit, but essentially they did what they felt like, arranged their own poses, and approached the tasks as play," Rinaldi says. "That made me think of the way kids play cops and robbers and war games, where if one of them doesn't like the way the other one died, they'd say, 'That's a do-over.' I thought that brand of playing with death flies in the face of death itself, and made the composition more interesting."
All this is perfectly suitable context and subject matter for a show, but Rinaldi seemed interested in supplying additional material in the form of a counterincentive. Along with a press packet, he mailed a witheringly self-critical letter to Seven Days before the show started on September 1, encouraging us not to review it.
"First, it is not all that good," the letter begins, and explains that the artist could be accused of doing little more than reworking photos "with a high resolution electronic pen and some very slick software to 'pretty them up' for today's gallery-goers." Rinaldi concludes: "Arguably, it is neither photography nor drawing, nor painting, nor theater, nor story-writing, but rather some kind of hybrid." Or possibly, he muses, his art is merely "obfuscation intended to deflect attention from detecting a sheer artlessness."
Artists have been asking themselves these questions at least since modernism began a century and a half ago. So, for the moment, let us concede that digitized and colorized work holds a perfectly secure place in the halls of inspiration (with the looming exception of colorized films on Turner Classic Movies).
Why would an artist submit a letter to the media decrying his own work in an attempt to keep it out of the media, when the desired effect could be achieved by writing nothing? It occurred to me that the letter itself was a part of the performance; by supplying his own harping Greek chorus, Rinaldi could preview and possibly short-circuit the disdain of viewers who might see him as taking death lightly. That possibility seemed likely, given the artist's statement supplied to the Fletcher. "Each scene seemed a fortuitous coincidence to fool death over and over," Rinaldi writes. "What a wonderful collaboration it was! Here, the viewer is invited to invent a story for each scene." He concludes, "Thirty years later I love [the photographs] anew."
The artist's self-assessment and message aside, "Playing Dead" is, on the whole, compelling. The colorization, selective and discreetly proportioned, is often decidedly muted. This muting actually causes the eye to focus more intently on the colored sections, while preserving the black-and-white framework, and it invites the viewer to take a step back from the occasional lightheartedness of the models, as if we now know something they don't. Garish colorization couldn't have produced such effects.
Rinaldi admits he actually likes the work, too. "I believe it has a tremendous amount of artistic merit," he says. "To me, the images . . . are astounding. I do wonder, though, whether anyone would want to purchase any of them. I mean, just because I find toying with death interesting doesn't mean others will."