Michael Ray Charles

by Latrisa Nettles
Liuba Carcamo
Ayesha Camarena
Michael Crespo

MICHAEL RAY CHARLES IS A NATURAL BORN FILMMAKER WHO SO
FAR HAS NEVER MADE A FILM. HE INSTEAD IS A PAINTER. HIS WORK
IS CINEMATIC. HIS WORKS ARE ONE-SHEETS, POSTERS FOR MOVIES
THAT HOLLYWOOD WOULD NEVER HAVE THE NERVE TO MAKE,
EXPLORING RACE AND SEX IN THIS COUNTRY.
I'M SO PLEASED TO SAY, HBO AND MYSELF HAVE COMMISSIONED
MICHAEL TO DO THE POSTER FOR MY NEW DOCUMENTARY, "4 LITTLE
GIRLS." THE PIECE IS ABOUT THE BOMBING OF THE 167H STREET
BAPTIST CHURCH IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA ON SEPTEMBER 15,
1963, WHICH KILLED FOUR LITTLE BLACK GIRLS. MICHAEL ONCE
AGAIN HAS COME THROUGH WITH A MAJ0R WORK, THAT CONVEYS
THE INNOCENCE LOST OF DENISE MCNAIR, CYNTHIA WESLEY, ADDIE
MAE COLLINS AND CAROLE ROBERTSON.
THE FIRST TIME I SAW HIS WORK IT WAS A REVELATION TO ME. I
SAID TO MYSELF, WHO IS THIS GUY? WHERE HAS HE BEEN, AND
WHEN CAN I MEET HIM'! I FELT MICHAEL WAS A KINDRED SPIRIT. I
WAS SO EXCITED JUST TO TALK TO HIM. MICHAEL RAY CHARLES IS
A MAJOR ARTIST. PLEASE TAKE NOTICE I DIDN'T SAY AFRICAN-
AMERICAN ARTIST. YOU SEE I'VE BEEN IN THAT TRICK BAG MYSELF.
LET'S NOT DO THAT DISSERVICE TO THE BROTHER. HE IS A MAJOR
YOUNG ARTIST, PERIOD. 
INTRODUCTION BY SPIKE LEE, 

to Michael Ray Charles:  An American Artist’s Work catalogue
at Blaffler Gallery, The Art Museum of the University of Houston

Michael Ray Charles is a young American painter,  born in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received an MFA at the University of Houston and teaches at the University of Texas in Austin. He is represented by The Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York, and Betty Moody in Houston. 

But who is he...really, and what are is paintings about?  We found out a lot about him by looking at the paintings and what they are about.

'His paintings are not about people,'  Charles explains,  'they are about images. They are about the negative stereotypes that African-Americans still buy into - the minstrel and the mammy-' and how they are updated, and (hidden in new images). These images are about the racial stereotypes that white people created and perpetuate, rather than knowing African-Americans as (elaborate) individual human beings. Charles says 'that the negative images about African-Americans are hiding throughout American culture, just below the surface, on TV sitcoms and cartoons of every vintage and in advertising and sports.'  He didn’t invent them, and he is not singlehandedly perpetuating them. The images that Michael Ray Charles paints are not to confuse people, he is not creating these stereotypes. He is trying to seek and create an understanding' among all people.(Cohen) 

Michael Ray Charles takes old tired images, and, like a surgeon, tries to expose the cancer within them, and like a doctor, the artist’s intent is to heal us by showing us our scabs. 

Toys R Us is an image wherein a black man/child is all fours, with a piggy bank hole in his head. Mr. Charles was a college basketball player, and does not hide his judgment of the sports world as another minstrel show in which black people play, white people watch, and the piggybank slot in the head of this image is about that very same condition of a new black stereotype. 

I think it’s interesting that recently there have been these films...[Michael] Jordan placed in the context of kids...Shaquille with Kazaam. All of these images are consistent with the stereotype associating black men with children. In a sense again there’s that duality. Jordan can say, ‘well, I’ll take this project or not.’ Yes, he could do this, but when it’s done, it really ties into old stereotypes. (Baciagalupi and  Kern-Foxworth, p.29)

Bang Bang: this African-American kid with dreads, the "Forever Free" logo with a recycle symbol and two guns is saying blacks are recycled with guns. Michael Ray Charles is trying to bring across the fact that black people are targets for violence and have been for many years. 

"Marilyn: ...(i)mages of the 70’s comtinue to pervade ourcontemporary culture: the pimp image, Willie Dee. In the 90s, they’ve been translated into ‘Mack Daddy’—the man who can pull women, and control them. There’s this dominant and unfearing quality in the 70s tough guy, that now has been transformed into the ‘ganstas.’ But there are no ganstas, that is fiction, fictitious. The idea of being bad and dominant and the toughest thing around. ‘Superfly,’ so cool, so bad. In these images, we were never shown the negative side. If you were not tough in the 70s you were not a man, you were a wimp. This evolved into gangsta rap. Contemporary pop music is informed by the film images." (Baciagalupi and Kern-Foxworth, p. 36-37.)

Armed & Hammering: a painting in the form of a puzzle that has a yellow-orange box with a muscled black arm holding a hammer. Around this arm there’s a red circle. The point that this image is expressing is destroying racism by hammering it away. 

Michael: Early on, whites in the North, who had had little contact with blacks, saw these images and thought, ‘oh, so that’s what a black person is.’ But they were only seeing images made by whites, abstracted. But that became their reference, the substitute for the real person. That’s what happened with these images. The perception and the reality got confused, when blacks had little to do with producing them. But they had to play along with the images to survive.
golddust.JPG (24507 bytes)nominstrels.JPG (18133 bytes)

...(t)hose images were used to sell anything and everything: a cleaning detergent, shirts, socks, shoestrings, food. ..I’m most interested in the evolution of images and ideas, and people. Despite the presence of these images and the stereotypes, blacks continue to strive.  (Baciagalupi and Kern-Foxworth, p. 38)

By painting these pictures and trying to create an understanding of the black experience, Michael Ray Charles has established a foundation in the artworld, at least in the eyes of some, like his friend Spike Lee, who sees him as a brother. 

Not so Roberta Smith, the New York Times art critic, who says he is painting just for the money. She says "his subject matter is not enough to raise the [paintings] above the level of clever stylish calculations."(Cohen)   We students, as people of color, understand the stance of the artist. We live it, and our problem with Smith is we know she cannot. Maybe Charles is not speaking to a small artworld based in New York City and auction salons, but to people like us, and he is telling us not to play the old/new games. If this is clever calculation, it has worked its charm. 

Michael Ray Charles is trying to express to the world for all people to understand that blacks are human beings, and don’t deserve being pigeonholed through images which play and still play a major role in society today.  If you have any doubts, try buying pancake mix at the grocery store.

An Image Gallery by Michael Ray Charles

 Free As Always by Michael Ray CharlesJoin the Band by Michael Ray CharlesNow Playing by Michael Ray Charlescan't_loose_icon.JPG (5517 bytes)

That's a Rap by Michael Ray Charles

WORKS CITED

Baciagalupi, Don and Kern-Foxworth, Marilyn, "An Interview with Michael Ray Charles," Michael Ray Charles:  An American Artist's Work.  Houston: Blaffer Art Gallery, 1997.

Cohen, Rebecca S. "Painting Race." http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/10-27-97/austin_arts_feature1.html.   Accessed:  February 11, 1998.

Our thanks go to Michael Ray Charles and the Tony Shafrazi Gallery for their permission to reproduce the images in this article and for graciously supplying.us with slides and a copy of the catalogue that accompanied the Blaffer Gallery exhibit. 
 


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Toys 'R Us
 















Bang Bang
 
 















Armed & Hammering (Forever Free), 1995