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 into a closet during his lunch hour to draw and soon decided he needed to find a more creative profession. Blissfully unaware of the University of Houston’s prestige in the visual arts, he showed up to talk his way into graduate school with a sketchbook and a slide of a single unfinished painting. He entered the vaunted MFA program in the fall of 1990, the second African American to do so in ten years.
Charles recalls being welcomed by one member of the art faculty with the remark, “I’ve got a bet that you won’t make it.” But for the most part, he remembers the awkward silences that greeted his work throughout the three years he spent earning his MFA. During the routine faculty-student critiques, he says, “I’d give my spiel on what this work is about. No one would say anything. Nothing. I always felt the professors had a hard time dealing with the content of my work. So I closed my door and just painted. I guess it was out of the realization that no matter how hard I tried, I’d always be”—he pauses, choosing his words—“the token black, perhaps?”
During Charles’s first year in graduate school, a friend had given him an antique Little Black Sambo figurine, which he promptly “tossed in a corner.” Discovering it a few months later while cleaning his room, he made it the subject of a drawing, Proudly Man-U-Factored in the USA, a disquieting vision of wide-eyed Sambos perched like oversized hood ornaments on bassinets moving along a factory assembly line. The picture haunted him so much that he started researching Sambo’s origins and history, eventually collecting old advertising placards featuring Sambo fronting for products like Watermelon Treats and Sambo Chocolate Malted Milk. “I discovered how the Sambo image developed out of the black minstrel shows, how the minstrel shows evolved into Barnum and Bailey and into the entertainment industry, how sports have become a form of the entertainment industry,” he says. “I started to see the similarities between the present and past, how those images have been repackaged and recast. People say those stereotypes don’t exist anymore. But the image is more sophisticated now, just as discrimination is more sophisticated now. We’re not looking at grotesque caricatures anymore. We’re looking at Deion Sanders smiling next to a Pepsi can.”
Armed with and alarmed by that insight, Charles began to revisit the old stereotypes and literally draw the connections between past and present. His paintings, scraped to resemble peeling antique advertising placards, presented his own bitingly satirical campaign for a fictitious, amorphous product called Forever Free, in essence a complex symbol of how the promises of freedom—and the free market—have often seduced and abandoned African Americans. And to pitch it he employed a troupe of spokespersons created by merging stereotypes old and new: a pickaninny with bleached-blond hair, gang-bangers, Aunt Jemimas, a Sambo wearing a jester’s cockscomb hat and munching on a basketball. Liberty-Perm Products, the equally fictitious manufacturer of Forever Free, soon metamorphosed into the Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus, a showcase for a series of alternately menacing and pathetic freaks including Handini the escape artist, his face wrapped in chains and locked by a “Masta Lock,” and Payback the Clown, his hand out, a baseball bat behind his back. Charles glues his personal trademark to these paintings: a Lincoln penny, a symbol of his token status as well as a commentary on the value of emancipation without economic integration.
In an era of art that is almost painfully politically correct, Charles’s aggressive yet accessible imagery and flip, sophisticated wordplay got instant attention. Betty Moody, one of Houston’s most respected contemporary-art dealers, gave him a one-man show right after he got his MFA in 1993. Participation in the Phoenix Triennial that year brought a call from New York dealer Tony Shafrazi, a major player in the SoHo art scene, who offered him a one-man show—an annual occurrence since—over the phone. After buying a Charles from one of Shafrazi’s shows, Spike Lee also phoned, leading to Charles’s designing a poster for Four Little Girls, Lee’s documentary about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Not all African Americans have been as favorably impressed. “A lot of blacks have problems with my work,” Charles admits. Indeed, there have been rumblings in advance of the Blaffer show. “What I’ve heard is that people are saying the images are so damaging they shouldn’t be used at all,” says Blaffer Gallery director Don Bacigalupi. And although Charles originally directed his work to a black audience, he has few black collectors. “I can count on one hand the blacks who have bought my paintings,” he says. “I’m challenging the idea of what black identity is. And I think some people have a problem when things don’t look the way they would prefer them to look.” White audiences, though less inclined to wince at first glance, should also find an unpleasant dose of self-recognition that goes far beyond their stereotypical guilt. There’s a strikingly color-blind universality to Charles’s vision of the amoral, bottom line—driven economic coercion—the dark side of All-American corporate capitalism—that spawned his black-faced stereotypes; Charles’s bleached-blond pickaninny is peering out of the same mirror as the fifty-year-old white male contemplating cosmetic surgery in order to keep his position in middle management.
While Charles has a keen sense of the ambiguities and ironies inherent in his work, he has an unambiguous conviction that the failure of frank racial dialogue in the present is setting us up for trouble in the future. “We don’t really talk about the things we need to talk about,” he says. “We’re moving farther away from sitting at the table, talking face to face.” The consequences, he believes, won’t be so much a race war as a retreat into an intensified version of the icy separateness he remembers from his childhood, a society where the “hidden conversation” of racism proceeds with the kind of vicious undercurrents he illustrates in The Deadly Parallel, a truly horrifying image of two snarling clowns, human-beast hybrids in camouflage makeup, facing off on the “United Country Grounds.”
But such visions don’t disturb the determined equanimity of the young man who labors away in his suburban cul-de-sac, teaching two days a week as an assistant professor at the University of Texas, welcoming his four-year-old son, Alex, home from preschool in the afternoon, occasionally flying off to New York to keep up with his increasingly profitable business there. But he doesn’t equate the bottom line with success. “For me, wealth is the opportunity to be influential in my children’s lives,” Charles says. “To use my talents without hurting anyone else. To be a good person. I had that kind of wealth before I started selling my paintings, so I’m not buying into anyone else’s idea of happiness or success. I think it’s important to define those things for yourself.”