Performing the Paintings: A contemporary artist inhabits the Baroque realist’s paintings in a work entitled “Cara Viaggio”

by John KELLY

I enter the room for model pose three

I access the wound, and paint what I see…

I single source light before I begin

To draw on the life, to shadow the skin…

I aim to seduce

I choose to offend

I live to give form

And I long to lose control.

From The Escape Artist*


My performance work evolved out of a background in dance and visual art, and has remained essentially ephemeral. I’ve retained a long-standing desire to merge these two disciplines into a tangible synthesis. This impulse resulted in a studio practice I recently implemented while a Visual Arts Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

Since the early 1980’s I have incorporated projections of film and video into my live performance works as a way to provide narrative option, dramatic emphasis, and textural variety. I have also maintained a visual art practice, which is comprised of self-portraits: drawings paintings and montages of video stills culled from existing videotape documentation of the live performances. While these two disciplines have rarely intersected, they do share a rigorous discipline of both inward and outward self-scrutiny that occurs through their ongoing relationships to: the mirror, an audience, the lens of a camera, the surface of canvas or paper. Creating within these formats has fostered both a certain sense of the self; manifesting my curiosity of the dramatic life of specific characters has allowed me to essentially become other selves.

While searching for an actual merging of my performance and visual art practices, I decided that video and photographic imagery would be a quite reasonable choice; a camera set up on a tripod camera could function as more as surrogate audience than documenter, and more as rectangular destination than audience.

In my studio at the Academy I embarked on this series of video vignettes from which I would also cull photographic stills; as subject matter I chose a man appropriate to Rome: Caravaggio. I was no stranger to making performance works about the lives of artists; one of my benchmark pieces remains my meditation on the Viennese Expressionist artist Egon Schiele, Pass The Blutwurst, Bitte. In this piece I dramatized both his life and his work, concocting various ways of theatrically replicating the process of painting and drawing onstage, within a dramatic tracing of his short and turbulent life.

Ripe dramatic fodder as source is a reality both Schiele and Caravaggio inhabit, and my habit has been to dive into the body of such creative souls. But I found myself feeling thwarted as to how, and even why, to dramatize Caravaggio’s life in a performance work. He appears simultaneously quite accessible (through his paintings) and enigmatically elusive (what little is known of the man). So very little, aside from some obvious and bloated facts: brilliant revolutionary, sexual outsider, impulsive brawler, hunted murderer and haunted man on the run, all leading up to a hyper-dramatic coda and a tragic early demise. Especially in a culture addicted to tantalizing sound bites and scandal, gossip and grovel, these crumbs of info inform this artist’s work too readily and truncate the capacity to fathom it objectively; they muddy his profound shadows with beguiling gradation of Bad Boy menace, irrationality, urgency and desperation.

Managing the blur between lore and fact may be useful as marketing ploy by exhibitor, easy entrée for a novice viewer, or lucky dramatic fodder for a performance maker like me, but they also carry with them the navigational hurdle of obviousness. Their transience compelled me to transcend such limited clues, and feast instead on what actually remains: his paintings. I would dramatize his paintings through video and photography.

Performing Paint

I usually work from the perspective of character and search for what is ‘telling:’ I aim to identify what they are doing, and what they want; I finally decide exactly who they  are. I have generally eschewed speech, and focus more on dramatic movement, regarding telling gestures as both visual and dramatic benchmark, loaded with information.

My goal in Rome was to kinetically, visually and dramatically inhabit some of the characters that populate Caravaggio’s paintings, while producing a tangible body of work. A camera on a tripod became my silent partner in these intimate studio improvisations, during which I would delineate the moments leading up to, and/or following the particular frozen moments in time that occur in his paintings.

In some cases I aimed for a more historically and visually accurate ‘cover’ (Narcissus; David and Goliath; Magdalen In Ecstasy); other times I altered the period but retain the pallet (Penitent Magdalen; Matthew and The Angel); change gender (Madonna di Loreto; Penitent Magdalen); change props and paraphernalia to the contemporary (Bacchus; St. Jerome); and in still other cases I allowed myself the freedom to instead focus on an essential synthesis of an identifiable general aspect of a series of his paintings (Fruit Boy 1 & 2).

What permeated all these choices was my imperative to maintain a rigor of recognizable kinetic body language, color, value, and compositional, insuring that some clear sense of recognition on the part of the viewer would occur.

The Sessions

I began by distilling Caravaggio’s work into its essential elements; I generally focused on my figure as lone protagonist, even if isolated from a group painting (Calling of Matthew; Beheading of John The Baptist). I trusted my capacity to articulate their essential climactic physicality, guided by Caravaggio’s facility to sweep the viewer into the action and immediacy of the heightened moment.

But I was also interested in articulating the unseen history of these figures: what led up to, and occurred after their particular skirmish with fate? The time-based nature of video allowed me toimagine these buttressing moments as well; my improvisational skills provided me with the freedom to jump into the skin of these figures and breathe their kinetic reality.

Caravaggio painted directly from nature, but for reasons other than the reliable passing of daylight he had little time to doubt his decisions, as troubles dependably stalked him like a follow spot. Maybe his need to grasp the love he clearly felt for those confluences of fleeting conditions added to the immediacy of his sessions. For me this was the key: the model (me) might get tired, but I could control that. The light, being artificial, could also be managed. But instead of painting, I was pushing the ‘on’ button or the remote controlling the click of a camera. My equivalent to Caravaggio’s momentous skirmish with changeable light, grousing and fatigued models, or systemic private alarm, would be the harnessing of my inner focus as I entered the aperture frame, the galvanizing of my skill and nerve to replicate—within my conditions–the mood, body language and authenticity of his paintings, and through this experience, to arrive at a synthesis. His compassionate, objective, and urgent depictions of reality became a calling for me to utilize what was appropriate and available, within my experience.

*This line from Cara Viaggio, an original song that is part of a longer performance work called The Escape Artist, a musing on Caravaggio’s work, his process, and life, set in a film dubbing session.

About the Author


John Kelly is a performance and visual artist whose work runs the gamut from solo and group mixed media dance theatre works, to vocal concerts, and exhibitions of visual art and video. His work explores the character of creative life as it occurs in the gradations between the ephemeral and the tangible. An online archive can be found at