TWENTY YEARS AGO, Michael Ray Charles was a rare quantity—a Black contemporary artist with mainstream recognition. His potent and thought-provoking work explored African American representation in popular culture, employed blackface and caricature to confront racial stereotypes, and presented complex images aimed directly at America’s shameful history of slavery, subjugation, racial violence, and white supremacy.

The images and symbols that form the basis of Charles’s oeuvre were highly controversial two decades ago. Today, they remain charged and problematic, but nonetheless ripe for these incredibly divisive times in terms of race, politics, and the facts of American history as debates around displays of the Confederate flag and towering Confederate monuments have dominated the public discourse over the past few years.

 


MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, (Forever Free) Facts of Live,” 2012 (acrylic latex and copper penny on canvas, 195 × 140 cm / 76 6/8 × 55 1/8 inches). | © Michael Ray Charles, Courtesy the artist, Templon, and Hedwig Van Impe. Photo by Remei Giralt

 

After a long period of disengagement—during which he continued to make work, but took a break from showing it— Charles won the Rome Prize in 2018, had a solo exhibition in Texas, and published a book surveying his three-decade career. Earlier this month he joined a new gallery.

Galerie Templon in Paris and Brussels now represents Charles. The gallery announced the news with a presentation of two paintings by the artist at Art Basel Miami Beach (Dec. 1-4). “(Forever Free) Post Black” (2011) and “(Forever Free) The Facts of Live” (2012) were featured earlier this month at the art fair.

The latter recreates Abraham Lincoln’s memorial statue, which anchors the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Zooming in on Lincoln enshrined in a monumental, throne-like chair, Charles situates three pot-bellied figures at the feet of the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Wearing white Klan hoods, they are dancing among guillotines.

The paintings were priced 135,000-150,000 Euros (approximately $150,000-$170,000). “Post Black” sold in the first hours of the art fair and the Lincoln painting was put on hold by an institution, according to the gallery.

In a statement to Culture Type, Mathieu Templon said the representation of Charles came after years of following the artist. “One of our collectors has one of the most important Michael Ray Charles collections in the world. I was fascinated by this story: an artist who gained recognition in the 1990s, but then withdrew from the public sphere for not only a few years but for two decades,” the gallery director said.

“Recently I came in contact with Hedwig Van Impe, his representative, friend and agent, with whom we talked about a collaboration. He showed me some of the works that Michael had created over the last 20 years. I was quite speechless. Even more when I realized that I was among the only few who had a chance to see these works. I already knew he was a right fit for the gallery and I wanted us to be part of this unique adventure: unveiling these hidden, but poignant, works to the world.”

CHARLES FIRST CAME TO PROMINENCE as an artist in the 1990s, creating work that evinced advertisements and vintage circus posters. In 2000, he was a visual consultant for Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” a satirical film about an African American TV writer who struggles to find support for his ideas because Hollywood studios have a preference for minstrelsy over positive and substantive representations of Black people and their experiences. Paintings by Charles were featured in the movie, including one carrying the same title as the project.

The following year, Charles and his work were showcased on the first season of Art21: Art in the 21st Century, the PBS series about contemporary artists. “I’ve been called a sellout. People question my Blackness. A lot of people accuse me of perpetuating a stereotype,” he said in the short documentary. “I think there’s a fine line between perpetuating something and questioning something. And I like to get as close to it as possible.”

Charles added: “I think people today, they operate from an emotional place when they see these images because they think of the past as being something that happened and that these concepts don’t linger. But these concepts continue to affect us in many ways. I think that these images are as much white as they are Black.”

“I think people today, they operate from an emotional place when they see these images because they think of the past as being something that happened and that these concepts don’t linger. But these concepts continue to affect us in many ways.” — Michael Ray Charles


MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, “(Forever Free) Post Black,” 2011 (acrylic latex and copper penny on canvas, 172 × 135 cm / 67 6/8 × 53 1/8 inches). | © Michael Ray Charles, Courtesy the artist, Templon, and Hedwig Van Impe. Photo by Remei Giralt

 

From 1991 to 2002, Charles presented solo museum and gallery exhibitions in Texas, Ohio, and at Toni Shafrazi Gallery in New York. “Michael Ray Charles: Paintings,” his first solo museum exhibition, was presented at Albright-Know Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1997. In Europe, he had shows in France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium. Shortly afterward, the artist took a step back from the art world in 2004.

“The controversial reception of his work…, combined with a growing sense of inadequacy and frustration with the American art world, led him to question the commodification of his art,” according to the gallery. The artist “chose to disengage himself from the public sphere to solely focus on his research,” a decision that was “encouraged, motivated and supported” by Van Impe.

BORN IN LAFAYETTE, LA., Charles moved to Los Angeles at age five and lived there for five years. But he primarily grew up in Louisiana, in St. Martinville. In college, he studied advertising design and illustration before focusing on painting. An artist and archivist, he has been based in Texas throughout his career. After teaching for more than two decades at the University of Texas at Austin, Charles joined the faculty of the University of Houston, his alma mater, in 2014. Currently, he is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Painting at UH. He splits his time between Houston and Brussels.

Charles is gradually and selectively showing work again. “(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations,” a site-specific and site-symbolic sculpture by the artist was installed in the Gordon-White Building at UT Austin in 2015. Formerly the Black and Latino Studies Building, the building was named for Dr. Susan G. Gordon and Edmund W. Gordon, retired professors and activists who were close friends with artist Charles W. White (1918-1979). The facility continues to house and bring visibility to programs dedicated to the study of the historically marginalized groups and cultures.

 


MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, “Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations,” 2015. | Landmarks, University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Paul Bardagjy

 

“(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations” was commissioned by Landmarks, UT’s public art program. Composed of wooden crutches, steel armatures, and steel cables that form a cluster of stars, Charles’s dynamic work is suspended from the ceiling of the building’s atrium. A departure visually from the work Charles is known for, the concept explores familiar themes.

“The sculpture evokes varied associations through the star forms that are created by the clusters of crutches. These can suggest the ‘Black Star’ logo of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department housed in this building, which in turn recalls the Black Star Shipping Line founded by the early twentieth-century radical activist Marcus Garvey and the iconic Lone Star of the state of Texas,” art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw said in the audio guide that accompanies the work.

“Further, each of the 26 stars corresponds to a different letter of the alphabet, pointing to the crucial role that language, the word, and literature have played in the history of African American culture and activism, and the development of Black studies in particular. Charles sees the artistic transformation of the crutches as underscoring these programs’ resourcefulness and highlighting the ability of its faculty to ‘make-do’ and ‘make better.’”

Charles also explained the work in a Landmarks video about the project. “I can appreciate concepts of beauty and struggle, even in conflict,” the artist said. “I think the crutches are symbolic of not only a tool, an aid, and assistance of mobility, or towards a mobile state, a state where one does not need dependency. I think the crutches are also a signifier of harm that has been inflicted. By whom? That’s a good question. Maybe it’s ignorance. Maybe it’s fears. Fears. Yeah, fears. It can make you stand and compete or put you in the fetal position. Face insurmountable challenges or nurture ideas of inferiority. Can promote instability and lack of mobility.”

“Each of the 26 stars corresponds to a different letter of the alphabet, pointing to the crucial role that language, the word, and literature have played in the history of African American culture and activism, and the development of Black studies in particular. Charles sees the artistic transformation of the crutches as underscoring these programs’ resourcefulness and highlighting the ability of its faculty to ‘make-do’ and ‘make better.’” — Art Historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw


Sotheby’s New York, Contemporary Art Day Auction, May 17, 2019
Lot 529: MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, “Forever Free: One and Another,” 2009 (acrylic and copper penny on canvas, 56 1/4 x 67 7/8 inches / 143 x 172.5 cm). | Estimate $30,000-$40,000. Sold for $100,000, fees included. RECORD

 

CHARLES IS PRIMARILY KNOWN FOR HIS PAINTINGS, which have been offered for sale periodically at major auction houses, more frequently in the past few years. His current auction record was set in May 2019 when a painting called “Forever Free, One and Another” (2009) sold at Sotheby’s New York for $100,000, about twice the estimate. Two other paintings—“(Forever Free) Big Mama’s Hot Link Heaven” (1996) and “(Forever Free) The Watermelon Party” (1996)—have sold at auction in the same price range, in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

In 2018, Charles won the prestigious Rome Prize. In 2019, a solo exhibition was dedicated to his work at the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum in Austin, Texas. “Michael Ray Charles” presented three bodies of work—new paintings and drawings created specifically for the show during his fellowship at the America Academy in Rome; “Every Head is a World, Every World is a Head,” a suite of seven prints made in collaboration with Flatbed Press in 2017-18; and selected objects from the artist’s collection of Black memorabilia.

“While somewhat distinct, the groups give testament to the importance of history and historic objects to Charles’ artistic practice. Particularly evident is how Charles functions as an archivist, one who collects material and visual culture not just to feed his imagination but also to make a meaningful intervention in popular culture,” Cherise Smith, professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas, Austin, and executive director of the art Galleries at Black Studies, wrote in the exhibition brochure.

“The works in the exhibition ‘Michael Ray Charles’ demonstrate that the artist has made a career exploring the power that attends well-constructed visual materials by sampling commercially produced icons, borrowing from the language of advertisements, and transforming the ethos of mass-marketing into a visual art context.” — Art Historian Cherise Smith

The new works incorporate a variety of images, including enslaved figures, slave ships, clowns, watermelons, and the Confederate flag. “Charles’ use of the figure of the clown in ‘Forever Free: Untitled (Dixie)’ reveals a schmaltzy and perhaps sinister sentimentality associated with the resurgence of the Confederate symbol,” Smith wrote.

She concluded: “The works in the exhibition ‘Michael Ray Charles’ demonstrate that the artist has made a career exploring the power that attends well-constructed visual materials by sampling commercially produced icons, borrowing from the language of advertisements, and transforming the ethos of mass-marketing into a visual art context.”

Exploring familiar terrain with a contemporary perspective, Charles is beginning a new chapter with new representation. Galerie Templon is collaborating with Van Impe to unveil a trove of works. Following the art fair presentation in Miami, the gallery plans its first solo show with Charles in March 2022 in Paris, debuting a series of works shown publicly for the first time. In the United States, the artist will have a hometown exhibition in the fall. A solo show dedicated to Charles opens in September 2022 at Hilliard Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. CT

 

IMAGE: Above left, Portrait of Michael Ray Charles. Courtesy Galerie Templon

 


MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, “(Forever Free) Untitled (Dixie),” 2019 (acrylic on paper). | © Michael Ray Charles, Courtesy UMLAUF

 


MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, Installation view of “(Forever Free) Desire,” 2019 (acrylic latex on canvas), UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum, Austin, Texas (Sept. 5, 2019-Jan. 12, 2020). | © Michael Ray Charles, Courtesy UMLAUF

 


Christie’s New York, Post-War to Present, Sept. 27, 2019
Lot 326: MICHAEL RAY CHARLES (b. 1967), “(Forever Free) Big Mama’s Hot Link Heaven,” 1996 (acrylic latex and copper penny collage on canvas tarp with metal grommets, 134 x 117 inches / 340.4 x 297.2 cm). | Estimate $50,000-$70,000. SOLD for $93,750 fees included

 


Phillips New Now New York Auction, Sept. 30, 2020
Lot 41: MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, “(Forever Free) The Watermelon Party,” 1996 (acrylic and copper penny on wooden panel, in 2 parts, 107 x 47 inches / 271.8 x 119.4 cm). | Estimate $30,000-$50,000. SOLD for $87,500, fees included

 


MICHAEL RAY CHARLES, “(Forever Free) Rising Tide,” 2006 (acrylic latex and copper penny on board, 153 x 221 cm). | © Michael Ray Charles, Courtesy the artist, Templon, and Hedwig Van Impe. Photo by Remei Giralt

 


Artist Michael Ray Charles discusses “(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations” (2015), his sculptural installation commissioned by Landmarks, the public art program at the University of Texas at Austin: “I think the crutches are symbolic of not only a tool, an aid, and assistance of mobility, or towards a mobile state, a state where one does not need dependency. I think the crutches are also a signifier of harm that has been inflicted. By whom? That’s a good question.” | Video by Landmarks

 


“The Eyes of Texas” the school spirit song at the University of Texas at Austin, where Michael Ray Charles was on faculty, has come under scrutiny as racist. In March 2021, the artist who is now a professor at the University of Houston, weighed in on what to do about it. UT decided to keep using the song. | Video by UH

 

BOOKSHELF
“Michael Ray Charles: A Retrospective” was published last year. Authored by Cherise Smith, professor of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas, Austin, and executive director of the art Galleries at Black Studies, the volume explores the artist’s three-decade career and includes nearly 100 color plates of his work. The Smithsonian American Art Museum recognized the volume with its 33rd annual Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art this year. “Michael Ray Charles” was published in 1998 to accompany the artist’s third exhibition with Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York City. Fully illustrated with text contributions from Spike Lee and Calvin Reid, the book includes a conversation between Charles and Shafrazi.

 

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