Ray Donley steps from the shadows to talk about his art
The woman peers directly at us, but her eyes are lost in shadow. Darkness shrouds the recesses below her brows like patches of sable velvet, dense and lush and strangely inviting. In fact, that same blackness envelops her almost completely, encasing her head, blanketing her shoulders and most of her torso, wrapping around her throat like a great dark scarf or the arm of some ominous, unseen creature. And it fills the space behind her, threatening to swallow her in its inky depths.
In this painting by Ray Donley, as in so much of his work, darkness is a persistent presence, a force to be reckoned with. The Austin artist routinely cloaks his subjects in its ebony folds, obscuring limbs, hands, and bodies to the point that the darkness appears to physically restrain them, even smother them. It stains their features, at times turning faces into masks – those not already wearing masks, at least. Donley's shadows are almost living things – from which his figures emerge, into which they sink, with which they struggle. They are a large part of what gives his work its mystery and allure, what has galleries across the U.S. and Europe showing his art, and what keeps collectors buying it. But more significantly, they are a potent expression of the artist's psyche and point of view. That his new solo exhibition, opening Nov. 2 at the Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery, is titled "Terminal Confessions" should tell you a lot about the dance with darkness in Ray Donley's art.
Donley's style – figurative, dramatic, full of high-contrast lighting – evokes that of the Old Masters, particularly the Dutch and Spanish portraitists of the 17th century, quite deliberately. That was the work that interested him as a young man – painters of the 14th and 15th centuries were, he says, "too Apollonian to me, too statuelike. By the 17th century, the painters looked like they were having fun. They were slapping the paint around." And that's what he sought to emulate when he became a studio art major at the University of Texas. But he couldn't find an instructor willing to help him develop that style, so he switched to art history and began to school himself. Donley calls himself "something of an autodidact," learning how to paint like an Old Master by immersing himself in the work of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Frans Hals and absorbing everything he could about their artistry. "My change to art history opened up so many doors aesthetically that I was able to see what I really wanted to do and refine what I wanted to do," Donley says. "I wanted to know the history of painting, the sociology, the phenomenology, the craft of painting, the fact of painting – I wanted to learn and master all of that."
But Donley wasn't soaking up all that knowledge to merely mimic what had been done three centuries earlier. "It's one thing to say, 'I want to paint like a 17th century Master,'" the artist says. "Well, that's nothing in and of itself. In fact, a lot of people do that, and it certainly is a craft; they've mastered a craft. But that's all they do. I was never interested in that. I just wanted that as a point of departure, so I could say something personal, hopefully something universal, in a unique kind of way."
What Donley had to say was bound up in the alienation he had experienced as a young man "forced" into a small, rural Baptist community in Central Texas. "You begin to sense that there are other minds, and those other minds are not like yours," he recalls. "You begin to awaken to the fact that you're different, that you perceive the world differently and don't understand why others don't. It's that moment of unalloyed alienation that you feel that you're distinct and that you're not part of the group.
"If artists are intellectually honest with themselves, emotionally honest, they feel that sense of being different, and there's a time when you're young when that's very painful because you don't understand it. But later on, when you turn away from that in a conscious way, you learn that there are other minds like yours, and it becomes a source not of depression but of celebration. You celebrate the fact that you're different. And if you're very, very good and very, very secure, you use that to express what you've experienced in your life and hopefully connect with other people."
A voracious reader, Donley gravitates toward writers and philosophers whose perspectives resonate with his own "dark and caustic view of the human condition." Conversations with Donley are as apt to reference Nietzsche, Beckett, Baudelaire, and Poe as Velázquez and Hals. "These people had a certain outlook on life that I shared," he says. "I think to this day the greatest literary exposition on this duality is Hermann Hesse in Demian. He talks about the sphere of darkness and the sphere of light and how each of us is drawn to one or the other. He was drawn to darkness, this kind of nocturnal aesthetic. It nourishes me in a way that something like painting flowers wouldn't."
In his art, Donley applies the potent chiaroscuro he learned from Caravaggio and his peers to fashion his very theatrical creatures of the night, figures in 17th century robes and caps, capes and masks, emerging from the darkness. The heavy use of shadows, Donley notes, "kicks it up another psychological notch. There have been whole books written on the nature of shadows and what they mean to human behavior and human psychology. It's a very poignant device to use, so I'm going to use it. I'm going to exploit it."
He's intent on using and exploiting that psychological device because, despite feeling alienated, Donley is also drawn to connect with others – at least others of like mind, people who share his point of view or are open to it. ("Let the rest all go to hell," he growls jokingly.) Like Groucho, Donley wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. ("I'll drink to that," he says, hoisting a glass of Guinness.) "If everybody liked my work, I would say I'm doing something totally wrong. Instead, I've developed this cult following, which I'm supremely comfortable with. I just don't want to get too popular."
Some three decades into his artistic career, Donley seems to have found an awfully sweet spot for an artist of such "dark insinuations." He shows regularly in a number of high-end galleries – Sarah Bain Gallery in Los Angeles; Blackheath and Medici galleries in London; Laura Rathe Fine Art in Houston; Touchet Gallery in Baltimore; Gallery Bienvenu in New Orleans; Meyer Gallery in Park City, Utah; Marshall LeKae Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Va. – but he's still able to live in his hometown, where he has a comfortable home in French Place and easy access to the pubs he haunts whenever he isn't in the studio (which is often 14 hours a day). And being in Austin gives him the opportunity to try new things that he wouldn't show at any of those East Coast, West Coast, or London galleries, such as the 3-foot-by-5-foot photographs he'll be exhibiting for the first time in this Russell Collection exhibition. (They're drawn from images he took as source material in sessions with his model at Salvage Vanguard Theater.)
Best of all, perhaps, is that for Donley, the act of painting is still fulfilling. "It's very therapeutic, just smearing the stuff around," he says. "Getting your fingers in it and manipulating it is a satisfying and therapeutic kind of practice." Moreover, he says: "I'm quite happy where I am. I've reached a level I've always sought to achieve." It's an unexpectedly sunny assessment coming from this artist who specializes in darkness. Put it down to proof that, with Ray Donley as with the world, you can't have shadows without a little light.
"Ray Donley: Terminal Confessions" runs Nov. 2-30 at the Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery, 1137 W. Sixth. For more information, call 478-4440 or visit www.russell-collection.com.