Landmarks Debuts Michael Ray Charles Sculpture at UT
The former UT art professor has created a constellation of crutches suspended from the ceiling of the Gordon-White Building
Crutches may be designed to be helpful, to aid folks in getting around, but that hasn't helped them be seen in a very positive light. There's a certain guilt by association at work with crutches; if you need them, then you must be lame, crippled, deficient. And think of how we've come to use them to characterize what we see as someone's over-reliance on an activity, object, or excuse: "Oh, he uses that as a crutch." In that sense, it isn't even a thing that person truly needs; it's just a device that's being clung to out of avoidance, to keep from doing something else that may be hard or painful.
Michael Ray Charles – you may remember him as a professor in the University of Texas art department for a couple of decades – has been considering the crutch quite a lot lately. It's the object at the heart of his new work commissioned from Landmarks, the UT-Austin public art program. Indeed, it's the material itself that makes up this site-specific sculpture, which will be dedicated in a ceremony and reception Thursday, Oct. 15. Charles has rounded up hundreds of these disparaged mobility enablers and liberated them from their earthbound purpose – freed them from the earth altogether. In (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations, all those crutches are suspended in the atrium of the Gordon-White Building, attached to one another to form 26 starlike shapes – one for each letter of the alphabet. They create a constellation that suggests new life for these devices, not as separate supports for individuals, perhaps, but as interconnected bodies that reflect a community's purpose and achievements.
Those who know Charles' work only from his provocative paintings and drawings that quote and subvert negative stereotypes of African-Americans may be surprised to find him working outside that signature framework and in three dimensions. But this isn't the artist's first dance with sculpture, and this work falls more within his thematic concerns than it might first appear. The recently expanded Gordon-White Building – formerly the Black and Latino Studies Building, home to the African and African Diaspora Studies Department, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, as well as the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies – is joined to the 1952 Geography Building by the atrium where (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations will live. Charles conceived of the sculpture as highlighting the passage from past to present and future. "Viewing the space as a transition between the old guard and the new, both architectural and academic, Charles contributed to the renovation and expansion by selecting finishes such as a raw concrete floor and exposed ceilings to convey ideas of growth and evolution. The artist acknowledges that in any attempt to grow, whether architectural or intellectual, there may be wounds and complex historical perspectives with which each generation must engage."
That's from Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw's essay about the artwork on the Landmarks website. The art scholar and associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania – who will conduct a public interview with Charles at the sculpture's debut – goes on to state how, to create the work, Charles "reflected on the challenges of minority communities in bringing their experiences from the neglected margins to recognition at the center of academic life. Through its presence in this space, the work engages directly with the difficulties that scholars of a broader and more inclusive American history, life, and culture have endured in order to pursue their intellectual interests.
"The metaphorical crutches that supported these communities for so long, now grouped together and bound at a common core, have been turned into a swirling mass of constellations that will propel them through the coming century. In this way, Charles' sculpture may be viewed as symbolizing the continued progress made by all cultural studies departments within the academy, as well as those who struggle to achieve greatness in the face of great odds."
Charles may no longer teach at UT – in 2014, he joined the faculty at the University of Houston, his alma mater – but he's the first artist with strong ties to the 40 Acres to be hired by Landmarks to create a new work for its collection, an achievement that adds even more value to this already priceless collection of public art.
The public dedication of Michael Ray Charles' (Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations will take place Thu., Oct. 15, beginning at 5:30pm with a question-and-answer session with the artist and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw in Auditorium 3.02 of T.S. Painter Hall, 103 W. 24th (24th & University). That will be followed at 6:30pm by a reception in the Gordon-White Building, 210 W. 24th (24th & Whitis). For more information, visit www.landmarks.utexas.edu.