by Latrisa Nettles
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
EXPLORING RACE AND SEX IN THIS COUNTRY.
I'M SO PLEASED TO SAY, HBO AND MYSELF HAVE
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
1963, WHICH KILLED FOUR LITTLE BLACK GIRLS.
AGAIN HAS COME THROUGH WITH A MAJ0R WORK,
THE INNOCENCE LOST OF DENISE MCNAIR, CYNTHIA
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
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
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 Artists 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
'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 didnt 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 artists
intent is to heal us by showing us our scabs.
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 its 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 theres that duality. Jordan can say, well,
Ill take this project or not. Yes, he could do this, but when its done,
it really ties into old stereotypes. (Baciagalupi and Kern-Foxworth, p.29)
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 70s
comtinue to pervade ourcontemporary culture: the pimp image, Willie Dee. In the 90s,
theyve been translated into Mack Daddythe man who can pull women,
and control them. Theres 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.)
& 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 theres
a red circle. The point that this image is expressing is destroying racism by hammering it
Michael: Early on, whites in the
North, who had had little contact with blacks, saw these images and thought, oh, so
thats 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.
Thats 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.
...(t)hose images were used to sell anything and
everything: a cleaning detergent, shirts, socks, shoestrings, food. ..Im 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
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 dont 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
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.