nov/ dec 2005
|the non-self portraiture of robert rainey
by lizzie zukker saltz
Like artists Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, newcomer Robert Rainey made the leap from the corporate world into that of contemporary art. His crossover outlook has produced a remarkable and timely series of conceptual photographic portrait projects. After working as a graphic designer, art director, and entertainment marketer for nearly 17 years five as Miramax's V.P. of Creative Advertising during the company's ground-breaking formative years' a life-threatening heart arrhythmia forced Rainey to return to the South for a risky surgery, reconsider his priorities, "get off the wheel... edit life tighter." Rainey chose to return to his first love, photography, taking classes and eventually pursuing a M.F.A. at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, which, amusingly, he saw as a relaxingly self-indulgent pursuit after the "self-imposed drama" and "constant pressure of money."
The idea that I might have a life as an artist was a revelation... What I soon realized was that in spite of all of my professional experience, I actually had something to say which was a product of myself. Everything prior been a team effort of sorts.
In light of this, it is telling that Rainey's ease with collaborative and market-driven production resulted in work unusual for its submerged self-expressivity and concern with audience reception. His artworks origins are nonetheless deeply personal, especially the Family Self Portrait Series begun in 2004, in which Rainey addresses, albeit obliquely, his homosexuality. In so doing, he engages with a tradition of performative photography linked to late-1980s identity politics. Yet Rainey's work reads as a cool 21st century antidote to the highly expressive, revealing, confessional, and sometimes purposely shocking self-transformations of gender-benders such as Loren Cameron, Deborah Kass, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, Pierre et Gilles, and Lyle Ashton Harris, to name a few. It also coolly answers the numerous queer identity exhibitions that took place during the Stonewall 25 season.
Not that Rainey was a stranger to the sturm und drang of the late 1980s. Born in 1963, he participated in the political theatrics of such vital AIDS activist organizations as ACT UP and Queer Nation in New York City at that "confusing time when all my New York mentors were dying, a typesetter one day, a photo retoucher. I recall one year when someone was dying all the time it was unbearable."
This sets the scene for his Family Self Portrait Series which on the surface seem utterly banal. What transforms them from mundane to complex is that in each image, I have replaced a family member with myself. I literally become an "actor" in someone else's environment. The idea here is to challenge conventional notions of what a family is and what "family" means. By inserting myself in a foreign context, I am subverting the conventional implications of "identity" for the typical family... [I]n view of the South's notoriously conservative attachment to social and moral norms, the pictures suggest a variety of controversial meanings. In addition, I would suggest that the most interesting aspect of these pictures is the fact that I have not staged them or art-directed them in any way: these are real families in their own homes.
The process can't be separated from the series' meaning. Rainey places ads in effect casting calls on the well-known Craigslist.com site, offering free professional family portraits in exchange for contributing to a graduate student art project. He hones the type of targeted families by adding one of these lines: -Seeking family with newborn celebrating baptismal or Christening;
-Seeking All American Family with the perfect white picket fence;
-Seeking couple with lots of different animals as pets and considers them family;
-Seeking family who collects art and would like to be photographed in front of their art.6
He was fortunate that several gay couples responded, as well as numerous straight families. He weeded out nine out of ten, selecting those who seemed the most open and least demanding on the phone.
The telephone interview was very telling and I would explain the concept at that point. I would meet with the families/wives at a coffee shop and show them some of my work. I would ask them to bring pics of their homes... and favorite family shots they had of themselves... At this point we would move forward with the project or not.... Most of the situations were put together quite naturally and I would always question how could I push the situation to speak about current dialogue of 2005... the dialogue within the press on the religious right, gay marriage, etc.7
These preliminary meetings allowed him to refine his selection even further, and led to collaborations with one out of three families. He then visited their homes, to return in appropriate costume and sit in as one of its members.
An army of Hollywood set decorators could not find more revealing locations to serve as commentary on the variety of contemporary American families or the visual codes through which we infer class and value systems. From the handgun Rainey didn't realize he was practically sitting on in Self Portrait: Same Sex Engagement to the all-black outfits of the art collecting family in Self Portrait: Power Family, each interior constitutes Found Art: Reality TV as conceptual art.
The project's political subtext is proffered as a puzzle. Which family member is Rainey replacing? Who is the "real" Rainey? Notably, Rainey offers no information about his sexual orientation. His bland, Babbitt-like, middle-aged "white-male" visage, coupled with an ability to blend, chameleon-like, into a variety of environs, underscores a firm belief in identity as fluid, arbitrary, and contextual. While his collaborator in Self Portrait: Same Sex Engagement was, in fact, a member of a gay couple seeking an engagement portrait with their beloved pets, in Self Portrait: Same Sex Marriage Family Rainey replaces the wife, but chooses to don male attire, imposing a same-sex story where there was none. The series is made to order for this moment, when gay marriage is in the political spotlight and when, Rainey feels, it is vital not to "hit people over the head." He adds:
[I] prefer to engage people in questioning about the family, let them have a discovery process in order to reach a larger audience. If I can make them question their role , then it's not just about the narrow issue of myself, of my gay identity."
Rainey's Family Self Portrait Series mimes the family portrait genre without mocking it. His portraits retain the humanity and dignity of their subjects because he integrates each family. The artist-as-method-actor embraces each found identity sincerely, "understanding the drama of the moment."
Three parallel projects-in-process elucidate the emerging artist's modus operandi. In the Family Reenactment series, diptychs combine "photos of my family prior to my birth [which] I reassemble in exactly the same setting and re-photograph. [In Uncles], the passage of time is blatantly obvious in the stooped postures of my dad and his brothers, now in their 80s."8 Again, the artist's own interests are revealed yet hidden, with larger issues illuminated in the process; in this case, the nature of mortality and the ambivalent urge to define ourselves in relation to the life trajectories of our kin.
In the Walmartification Series, Rainey is again his own producer, actor, director, and location scout, disappearing behind the identities of Wal-Mart photo customers. He takes a number and observes random persons ahead of him as they create their own commercial self-portraits. Then, as the next customer in line, he copies their pose and props, requiring the willing collaboration of a Wal-Mart photo-shop employee.9 The results are hilarious and disturbing, especially in images where he adopts the demeanor of children.
Finally, in researching his southern relations who fought on the confederate side, he has begun to infiltrate the strange world of Civil War reenactors. No small task, as they are understandably a guarded group, with more political stripes than one might assume of people obsessed with "the war of northern aggression," as it is still referred to in the South. Rainey's ability to capture anachronisms and to detect and relay the loaded subtexts of reenactments, reenactors, and their surroundings in the Reenactment Series without meddling or staging is further testimony to his ability to earn the trust of "Red State" denizens. From Woman of War, his portrait of two cheeky gals accurately reenacting soldiers who enrolled in drag,10 to Kids of War, a pair of leery teens shrouded by fog, the images convey the specters of failure that still haunt economically struggling southern cities, such as his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia.
Rainey's collaborations with different groups and individuals on projects that reflect contemporary American experience produce work that is distinctly sensitive to audience accessibility. Despite a film-still style and penchant for fiction, Rainey s real-world methodology distances him from the overtly theatrical and referential photographers he superficially resembles, such as Cindy Sherman or Yasumasa Morimura, and, surprisingly, weds him to that goddess of conceptual community-collaboration, Mierle Ukeles.
Robert Rainey currently resides in Albuquerque, where he is pursuing a M.F.A. at the University of New Mexico. He spent over a decade in the entertainment industry where he directed hundreds of marketing campaigns for movies such as Basquiat, Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, and Good Will Hunting. His photographs were last seen in January 2005 at Chicago s Heaven Gallery in Who Makes Self Portraits in 2004?, a group exhibition curated by Jason Lazarus. His upcoming projects include a solo show at the Chicago Cultural Center [June 3 August 6, 2006]. Rainey's current work can be found at www.robertrainey.com.
Lizzie Zucker Saltz is a freelance writer who has been contributing to ART PAPERS since 1998. Her essay on the work of Laleh Mehran appeared in ART PAPERS 29:2 (March-April 2005). She is also the founder and director of ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art in Athens, GA. The author thanks Edwyna Arey, co-curator of Relative: Photographing Domesticity, a group exhibition presented at ATHICA in fall 2004, for bringing Mr. Rainey's work to her attention.