MY WORK ATTEMPTS TO BRING ABOUT CHANGE. In that sense I’m a political artist. But I’ve never said I’m angry. And I’m not.”
Offered in a soft monotone, this is as close to insisting on a point as Michael Ray Charles ever gets. And it is easy to take him at his word. Just 29 years old, he seems if anything precociously settled down, living with his wife and two young sons in a northwest Austin neighborhood where Johnson grass meadows are rapidly giving way to manicured lawns and spacious two-story houses occupied by upwardly mobile techies. He’s got Oriental carpets on his hardwood floors and a new Toyota 4 Runner in his garage.
The art, of course, speaks in a dramatically different tone. The incendiary racist stereotypes that recur in Charles’s paintings—rubber-lipped Sambos and grinning pickaninnies—have outraged many African Americans and perplexed the politically correct. The controversy, however, has only fueled Charles’s career, resulting in a string of sold-out shows in major Texas and New York galleries, a recent museum debut at Buffalo’s prestigious Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and a career survey opening June 6 at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery, to be followed in short order by shows in Paris and Belgium. Fellow African American iconoclast Spike Lee collects Charles’s work and has written the introduction to the oversized, in-your-face catalog for the Blaffer Gallery show.
Michael Ray Charles is no more the typical up-and-coming artist than he is the stereotypical young black male. Arguably the highest-flying Texas artist to emerge in the nineties, when the decade began Charles was a former college basketball player who hadn’t even started to study art seriously and who, by his own account, never connected in a University of Houston master of fine arts program that has jump-started the careers of so many other Texas artists. He has remained an art-world maverick more likely to browse through Advertising Age than Art in America, a keen student of contemporary popular culture who makes paintings that often resemble antique circus posters. Most remarkably, at a time when a carefully contrived public persona has become a requisite for success, the exquisitely paradoxical Michael Ray Charles has succeeded by being exactly who he is: an ambitious young artist with New York’s SoHo at his feet who prefers to walk the family-values walk in an Austin subdivision, a dedicated racial healer who believes that by confronting Jim Crow imagery we can expose today’s increasingly subtle racist stereotypes—and that if we don’t, we will relive the racial tragedies that stain our history.
Born in 1967, a year before Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and America’s inner cities burned, Charles grew up in the tiny southern Louisiana town of St. Martinville. “It was a good, safe place. When you played sports and wore the uniform that represented the town, the whole town was behind you,” says Charles, who attended an integrated high school. “But after graduation, blacks went to one side of the railroad track and whites to the other. The businesses were all owned by whites. There were boundaries blacks were not supposed to cross. It was a cold war.”
The mammy or Aunt Jemima is frequently a heroic figure in Charles’s paintings—which some might interpret as a reference to the widely cited African American matriarchy and, by inference, absent black fathers. But the real heroes of Charles’s childhood were his grandfather and father, both very much present. “I watched how my grandfather lived,” he says. “He was a gentleman. He couldn’t read or write, but he’d get up and go to work every day, work hard. He was a master carpenter who could build, wire, and plumb entire houses.”
Charles’s father, who worked for a state-run community action agency and remains a perennial town councilman, represented a generational leap. “I remember my father clashing with the powers that be in this small town,” Charles says. “I remember the pain and stress on his face, trying to figure out how to work things out and still stand up and be a man. I can’t say I’m the kind of person to get up on a soapbox and speak out. But my dad was. He still is.”
As a high school artist, Charles showed enough talent to win a $500 art scholarship to McNeese State University in nearby Lake Charles. But hoop dreams drove him through college. A six-foot-four guard, he was a freshman walk-on who made the team. “I believe I could have played in Europe,” he says, but differences with his coach caused him to quit the team halfway through his senior year. “Now I realize that my wanting to play basketball allowed me to finish college,” he says. His own experience has given Charles an ambivalent view of black sports superstars, admiring their hard-earned marketplace muscle while excoriating the high price at which dreams of athletic stardom are retailed to inner-city kids. A work-in-progress, one of about ten stuck to the wall of the two-story studio Charles built in his house, shows an image of a little black boy hugging an immense basketball sneaker that resembles a public-housing tenement—“the old woman who lived in a shoe” updated to embrace the modern urban fairy tale of NBA multimillionaires springing from the projects.
Quitting basketball turned out to be Charles’s creative emancipation. An advertising major who had taken some art classes, he cranked out twelve paintings his last semester in college, lyrical figurative works based on musical themes and family relationships. “Those genre scenes were the groundwork for what I’m doing now: trying to deal with the black experience as I saw it,” he says.
After graduation Charles tried to get a job in advertising, looking first in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, then moving on to the nearest large Southern city, Houston. He struck out there as well but, in an irony of the downsizing-era marketplace, was able to stay in Houston as a personnel counselor, finding jobs for other people. He also found himself sneaking