Michael Ray Charles' New Art Asks Hard Questions About Race and America

The internationally acclaimed artist returns to Austin with new work that, as ever, leaves us asking ourselves what we see

Michael Ray Charles (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The artist spreads the paint deliberately but quickly, filling in the sketched-out semicircle with a bright shade of red. As the shape is no larger than his hand, he needs only a few strokes to complete the task. But then he takes a few steps to his left and there's another semicircle, so he repeats the motions, filling it in. And when that one's done, he takes some steps up a ladder and fills in one that's higher than the others. When you're as close to the canvas as the artist is, the painting of each individual shape appears a small thing. Step back, though, and dozens of outlined half-moons come into view, spread across an epic canvas 19 feet tall. Seeing the whole of it, you become aware of the true scope of the work. What's happening here is colossal.

As it is with this work of art – created specifically for the current exhibition at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum and for the gallery's back wall – so it is with the work's creator, Michael Ray Charles. Standing in this intimate space containing some 20 paintings and prints by Charles, you might conclude that this solo show is modest, small. Step back, though, and take in all its elements – Charles' three decades of making art, his long history in and connections to Austin, his illustrious international reputation, and the exhibit's timing – and you see that "Michael Ray Charles" the show is something major, massive.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Many locals might have lost sight of Charles' prominence during the long time he lived here, much of it as a quiet presence teaching art at the University of Texas. You need to go back 22 years for the last show of his that made a big impact here: a retrospective at the Austin Museum of Art (now the Contemporary Austin) that took an extensive look at Charles' first decade as an artist. It was packed with the bold and daring, thought-provoking and unsettling images that were already earning him widespread attention then: images linked to stereotypes of African Americans (coal-black skin, outsized ruby lips, watermelons) coupled with loaded text ("The Dawgboy Alive and Well," "White Power," "Hello, I'm Your New Neighbor," "Beware"), blacks from American pop culture recast in different roles (Aunt Jemima as Wonder Woman and Marilyn Monroe, Sambo as Mickey Mouse and the Pillsbury Doughboy). With Charles appropriating the style of advertisements, circus posters, and magazine covers from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century, his works layered white nostalgia for earlier, "simpler" times onto oppressive racial attitudes of the past and present.

The work generated strong responses from people who saw it, and interest and acclaim from those in the art world. Charles was among the first artists to be spotlighted in PBS's Art21: Art in the 21st Century. His art began to be exhibited in Europe as well as across the U.S. and was acquired for collections far and wide, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to the Museum of Modern Art. In the exhibit "Men of Steel, Women of Wonder," the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art included one of its paintings by Charles alongside works by Jim Shaw, Enrique Chagoya, Llyn Foulks, Vincent Ramos, Norman Rockwell, Pope.L, Peter Saul, and Laurie Anderson. (Aside: Charles, who saw the show when it was presented at the San Antonio Museum of Art, says he was thrilled to be part of it. "I never thought I'd have work with that kind of lineup.") Five years ago, Charles left UT for the University of Houston. Last year, he received a major art-world honor: the Rome Prize, with which he spent an extended period of time this past year in Italy.

Now, Charles is back in the States, and the exhibition at the Umlauf is not just the first showing of his work since his return, but also his first solo exhibit in the U.S. in 18 years – a fact that even Umlauf curator Katie Robinson Edwards didn't know until the week the show was being installed. That the Umlauf – and by extension, Austin – has scored this kind of achievement with an artist of international stature is significant. And adding to the import is that said artist is creating a site-specific piece for the show – a piece, it's worth noting, that's in the vein of a painting Charles made for an exhibition of work by 2018-19 Rome Prize fellows. That was also a floor-to-ceiling work painted on canvas with a weight and texture suggesting sailcloth. On it, Charles placed the detailed silhouette of an old sailing ship, only painted on every surface were faces – black faces, dozens of them overlapping one another and many with red semicircles over their mouths, red semicircles that call to mind watermelon slices. The image alone has a haunting power, and in the Umlauf gallery that power will only be magnified by its size, by the way it will loom over the viewer who comes into its presence – especially now, on the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia.

Other works in "Michael Ray Charles," while smaller, are also likely to haunt viewers, each in its own way. To the right of the site-specific work is a line of paintings in which Charles utilizes imagery from the past in provocative ways, often by juxtaposing one with something unexpected: a red-checkered tablecloth straight out of a cheerful diner of old, on which is placed a nose, a tongue, an eyeball, a severed finger; the face of a grinning clown from an old circus poster – white greasepaint; red nose, lips, and eyebrows; yellow cap; ruffled collar – but sliced in half and set on top of a Confederate flag; an empty rowboat, behind which is a Jolson-esque figure in blackface. They grab the eye and do not easily turn it loose, and they keep your mind spinning.

Prints from the series Every World is a Head, Every Head is a World by Michael Ray Charles, installed at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Above is a series of seven prints that Charles produced at Austin's Flatbed Press with master printer Veronica Ceci. In the series, titled Every World is a Head, Every Head is a World, the first six prints feature floral bouquets, the colors slightly faded as if they came off an antique greeting card, and they appear in various positions around the head of a black child: in small bunches, barely touching the head; in a thick stream, almost swallowing the head; shaped like an Afro atop the head; sitting below the head; and so on. But in the seventh, the flowers are gone, replaced by the face of the black child and others, covering the entirety of the paper. (They're much like the faces covering the ship in the large work.) On the day I visited, Charles took a break from painting to discuss his thoughts behind the series. He'd been looking at images from the mid-19th century and their borders, and it got him thinking about concepts of romance and beauty and beautification. In exploring them, he saw a progression from romance with oneself, in one's own mind, to concepts that entangle the head to the question, "If you can conceive beauty in your mind, can you conceive your body within that beauty?" That progressed to ideas of otherness and coexisting with others. "And in this final print," he said, "I think there's a lingering question: What is beauty?"

That's a complicated question, one with no pat answer. It requires us looking – looking deeply – and thinking about what we've seen and also what we think, and how we, and the society we live in, regard and treat people. It isn't black and white, and, of course, it is black and white. And that's so much of what makes Michael Ray Charles an invaluable artist for this country in this time. He makes us look. He leads us to the hard questions and makes us ask ourselves who we truly are.

“Michael Ray Charles” will be on view through Jan. 3, 2020, at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, 605 Azie Morton. For more information, visit www.umlaufsculpture.org.

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Michael Ray Charles, Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, Katie Robinson Edwards, Austin Museum of Art, Rome Prize

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