Originally published by Houston Press Jun 12, 1997
©2004 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Art of Darkness
The resulting 72-painting exhibit is unquestionably the blockbuster show of the summer in Houston. At its opening last week, guests -- both black and white -- waited in a long line to get Charles's autograph, clutching their copies of the show's poster-size catalog (which comes in its own end-stitched feed bag). And if Charles is not enough of a celebrity on his own, filmmaker Spike Lee and venerated black artist Elizabeth Catlett, who lives in Mexico City, will appear at a panel discussion with the artist on June 26.
A steady stream of publicity for "Michael Ray Charles 1989-1997: An American Artist's Work" has teased the public since last fall, when the Blaffer sent out a mailing advertising a limited-edition plate designed by Charles -- one that shows a black man crouching like a trained monkey on a circus platform. An oversize announcement for the exhibit itself followed, along with a feature on Charles in the latest International Review of African American Art and a six-page spread in the June issue of Texas Monthly, which proclaimed Charles a "racial healer." Finally, there was the invitation to last week's kickoff gala auction, trumpeting, in case anyone was not yet aware, "It's Show Time! It's Show Time!"
To those familiar with Charles's work, the phrase "It's Show Time!" can't help but bring to mind a minstrel show, an association most African-Americans might well want to avoid. Not so Charles: In his mind, their association with the minstrel show -- the precursor, he says, to today's megabucks entertainment industry -- and other examples from the blighted history of the portrayal of blacks in American culture are what give his paintings their power. In fact, says Charles, he might use "It's Show Time!" in one of his next pieces. "I only wish," he adds, "that it had been my idea."
Consider one painting from "Michael Ray Charles 1989-1997," a "poster" Charles made to advertise the attractions of his imaginary, metaphorical "circus." In old-fashioned fun- house lettering, the poster reads "Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus." The rich red ground of the poster is ornately decorated with flourishes of gold, and the whole affair is distressed and faded to look like a genuine antique (not just any antique -- an expensive antique). In a gilt frame, a black jester painted to look like a cross between a figurine and an actual man in blackface smiles the widest, most ingratiating smile you've ever seen, vivid red Sambo lips stretching from ear to ear even as the paint around him flakes gently away. A white banner slung across one corner declares, "SOLD OUT."
Other painted attractions in Charles's Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus series include: The Sealboy, a black man who wears a suit and tie while performing tricks; a hog-tied black "Handini" whose pickaninny braids poke through a chain secured by a "Masta" lock; and a black ringmaster who makes three white donkeys dance, directing them with what appear to be paintbrushes instead of whips. In the carefully worded artspeak of the exhibit's press release, Charles's "revised depictions of stereotypical characters such as Sambo, Buckwheat and Aunt Jemima ... call attention to contemporary issues of race and prejudice."
Maybe so. But those most affected by racism have indicated some trouble with both Charles's work and the attention it receives. "These images make black people uncomfortable," claims Andrew Malveaux, assistant director of the arts organization Project Row Houses. "They don't bring about positive thoughts or images when we look at them."
"The thing for people that is so perplexing about Michael Ray Charles's work," adds black Houston artist David McGee, "is that his images don't turn the corner. The work stays the same, it doesn't do anything .... It's like watching A Clockwork Orange, it's like watching victim after victim. We don't see his game plan for turning this civilization around."
Nationally, Charles is part of a mini-wave of black artists working with traditional stereotypes of their race. This year, 72-year-old African-American painter Robert Colescott, whose work is less extreme but attracts many of the same criticisms as Charles's, will be the first black artist to represent the U.S. in the prestigious Venice Biennale. And the 1997 Whitney Biennial, the benchmark survey of contemporary American art, included rising stars Kara Walker, a black artist from Georgia who makes frilly Southern-style silhouette cutouts of lynchings and slave rapes, and black artist Kerry James Marshall, whose largely abstract paintings are dotted with Sambo-esque imagery.
"There is a concern within the community of African-American artists that works that are created from stereotypes receive what appears to be an inordinate amount of attention," says Museum of Fine Arts curator Alvia Wardlaw. "Young artists might think, 'If I am to become famous, this is what I have to do.' "
As if in direct response to Wardlaw, Charles seems to be struggling to disassociate himself from the controversy his work causes. He would not agree to a sit-down interview with the Press, though he did chat on the phone for a few minutes. "I'm tired of talking," he explained. "I'm tired of defending myself. It seems like it's always the same questions. Making art is not about trying to win somebody over."
Houston is the city where Michael Ray Charles first tasted success, so it may not have surprised him to find that his first major survey show would originate here (it will later travel to Cincinnati, Austin and probably Chicago and Dallas). But because he first used racist images here, this is also the place where he first encountered bitterness and anger on the part of other blacks. The ferocity of the early response to his work dismayed Charles, forcing him into a defensive position. As a result, Charles and Houston's black community are somewhat wary of each other. "I thought there was some support in Houston by now," he said sadly when the Press first called him at his home in Austin. "But from what Don [Bacigalupi, director of the Blaffer] has been telling me, I guess there's not."
Charles grew up in St. Martinville, Louisiana, and attended McNeese State University in Lake Charles, where he majored in advertising and joined the basketball team (an experience that contributed to the frequent juxtaposition of athletes and black stereotypes in his work). A job search took him to Houston, where in 1990 he entered the painting department at UH. At the time, he was the only African-American in the department.
It was off campus, at Houston's Community Artists Collective, that Michael came into contact with other black artists for the first time in his life. In Michelle Barnes, director of the Collective and the Barnes-Blackman Galleries, both of which focused on contemporary work by black artists, he found a nurturing supporter. Barnes invited the talented, if collegiate, artist who painted pictures of musicians and mothers to enter group shows. One day, Charles walked into the Collective with a tiny figurine a classmate had given him: a crouching Little Black Sambo baby. In a serious tone, he puzzled over the figure, asking Barnes what she thought it meant. As Barnes watched over the next few months, Charles became obsessed with the black baby, casting it in plaster and sketching it in small, neat pencil drawings, replicating it over and over again. From there, Charles moved on to other racial stereotypes. "He was searching for something," Barnes says. "Because I knew Michael, I understood that he was on a true search."
Though Barnes was the first in Houston to show Charles's paintings, his work was soon included in a variety of shows and, not surprisingly, created a ripple of dissent. In 1992, when he arranged a display of the Sambo figurines in a show at the public library's main branch downtown, they were repeatedly knocked down. A Nation of Islam member complained about the piece, but the library let it stand. Later that year, drawings of the Sambo-esque babies being mass- produced on an assembly line stood out in a high-profile show that Rick Lowe curated at the Glassell School of Art. This time the works, gentle in comparison to Charles's current style, drew admiration. Art dealer Betty Moody, who runs one of the city's blue-chip galleries, invited Charles to show his work in the summer 1993 round of "Introductions," which parades new talent for inspection. Barnes recalls pointing out to Charles that he wasn't exactly new, having already done a solo show at her gallery. She suggested that perhaps he should hold out for a more prestigious slot. And Moody remembers that Charles did hesitate before accepting her invitation.
Moody worried that Charles might perceive jumping from Barnes-Blackman to her gallery as selling out. "There were people concerned about the work staying in the [black] community," Charles allows. "But I'm interested in having the opportunity to make work that people can look at. It wasn't a black/white decision. It was a good opportunity."
In the Moody Gallery show, Charles's exploration of stereotypes consolidated into an all-out tour de force: the Forever Free and Forever Free Post series. Forever Free played on the use of black stereotypes in advertising, showing, for example, a black girl with blue eyes and blond pigtails grinning over a product logo. The Forever Free Post series mimicked Norman Rockwell's affectionate style, offering minstrels, jesters and kerchiefed mammies withholding slices of pie from clamoring white boys in a play on Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. Collectors, all of them white, snapped up every piece, and white critics made Charles the undisputed star of the season. These critics perceived Charles as some kind of racial shaman. "Art as a healing force," the Chronicle headlined above an image of a cheery black jester. Texas Monthly titled its recent story "Shock Therapy: Austin painter Michael Ray Charles ... believes that his art can heal." But apparently that perception is not one Charles himself shares. When asked how, exactly, his work can heal, Charles replied, "Did I say that?" Well, not exactly. But can your work heal? "No," said Charles.
Shortly after the Moody Gallery debut, David McGee popped the question that was so much on people's minds that the mere asking of it was widely perceived as an attack on Charles. McGee, a Houston artist whose career is, if not as meteoric as Charles's, most definitely on the rise, was a pal of Charles's -- as students, the two used to meet at McGee's studio and talk. In 1993, they served together on a panel discussion at the University of Houston in conjunction with an exhibit on the civil rights movement. At the panel discussion, McGee, in his typically brash fashion, asked Charles who, exactly, his work was aimed at. Charles replied that his art was for everyone -- "That answer didn't make any sense," McGee says -- and a heated debate erupted over Charles's work. McGee says the two haven't spoken since.
But the question remains on the minds of many African-Americans familiar with Charles's work, in part because whites appear to have a higher comfort level with Charles's images than they do. Neither Moody nor Charles can name a black collector in Houston who has purchased his work since he began dealing in earnest with black stereotypes.
Of course, that can be explained at least in part by economics -- there aren't a lot of black art collectors, period, and certainly not many with the money to purchase a Michael Ray Charles at today's prices -- $8,000 to $25,000 a pop. But there are at least enough black Houston collectors to keep private dealers such as Eugene Foney, who markets the work of older black artists to a largely black clientele, in business. Foney admits that Charles's work is "better accepted in a global context than in a local context," but he attributes the absence of Charles's work from black collections to marketing more than anything else. "Ask Betty Moody how many black collectors she has, period," he says, speculating that Charles would be an easier sell for him than the venerable black artist John Biggers, whom Foney represents.
Management consultant John F. Guess, a black patron of several black Houston artists, doesn't agree with Foney. In Houston, he says, adventurous black collectors are anomalies. "In this town, black collectors buy safe, what's acceptable," Guess says. "In reality, this is still a big plantation. [Charles] makes that uncomfortably clear. They don't buy because he puts a mirror on them." Guess himself doesn't own a Charles because he didn't buy soon enough to get an affordable deal, he says. But, he adds, "I would love to have one."
The fact that whites are the main buyers of works that reflect America's history of white dominance makes some African-Americans distinctly uncomfortable, whether or not they like Charles's paintings. "Maybe they just like owning a piece of us," says Dorris Ellis, Blaffer board member and publisher of the Houston Sun, echoing comments made by many others. "They owned us at one time. It probably brings back memories."
Moody, who owns a Charles piece titled Army of Clowns, says that as a Southern white woman, she's interested in what a Southern black man has to say. She points out that in the work she owns, in which muscular black clowns armed with hammers bear down on the viewer, the stereotypes take on a threatening power all their own -- they aren't victims. "They're frightening," she says. Moody is right, but she's also treading on thin ice. After all, hasn't the stereotype of the threatening black man titillated white women at the same time that it's hemmed in blacks' social mobility? Appreciating a Michael Ray Charles painting for its stunning color, composition and craft is easy; appreciating one on terms that would pass politically correct muster is well nigh impossible.
And white collectors aren't oblivious to the social commentary in Charles's paintings. Toni Beauchamp, who owns Charles's portrait of an albino Michael Jackson in a jester's cap, says it's obvious that Charles is trying to instigate change. "It's easy for the group not being discriminated against to ignore the problem," she says. "But this work doesn't allow you to ignore it." She says she can understand why African-Americans might not want the work hanging on their walls. "It's that too-closeness. Too close to the pain."
To be sure, Charles walks a delicate line, poking fun at black entertainers and athletes and picturing black men as clowns, beasts or lustful courters of white women. His point is, he's said, that blacks have bought into these white-created stereotypes. But the problem for some is that Charles doesn't always make it clear that he himself hasn't bought into them. "In some cases," says Don Bacigalupi, "he's not doing enough violence to [the stereotypes] to make it clear and unambiguous what his relation to the images is."
If Charles's depictions of minstrels and mammies offend some African-Americans, at least one of his rare depictions of a white stereotype didn't sit well with an element of that viewing public either. Realtor Kathy Wetmore owns You Only Live Once, a Charles painting of a naked, Barbie-like white woman down on all fours on a pedestal. A black man in a suit stands behind her, arm poised mid-spank. "Thousands of them have had the same dream but these two do something about it!" reads the unpunctuated, infomercial-like copy. Wetmore says she responded to the piece immediately. "I just felt it was making a really important statement," she says. "I think it's more of a white woman's fantasy than a black man's fantasy."
Be that as it may, it wasn't an acceptable fantasy for Boulevards, a magazine that caters to Houston's wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods. After a recent photo session for a spread on Wetmore's home, a Boulevards editor phoned and asked Wetmore to remove the Charles painting for a reshoot. She did, replacing it with another painting. "They said, 'Well, we think it would offend a lot of people in the neighborhood.' It was because there was a black man and a white woman," Wetmore contends. "I'm sure if I'd had the kids eating watermelon [another Charles painting] up there, it would not have mattered."
Spike Lee, who along with Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper and David Allan Greer is part of Charles's growing contingent of celebrity collectors, points out that Charles doesn't, after all, decide who buys his work. "Michael Ray Charles would love to sell his work to more black people," he says, adding that he plans to introduce the artist to other black patrons of the arts -- for example, the Cosbys, who are famous for their collection of African-American works.
Aside from Lee, New York City has yet to yield more black customers for Charles than Houston, says Charles's New York dealer Tony Shafrazi. That's not, he says, because of the images, but because African-Americans don't have a tradition of involvement with contemporary art. Charles's work is "very hip," explains Shafrazi. "It's cool enough to make fun of the stereotypical black image from a black perspective .... The whole idea of contemporary art is very gutsy, very ballsy. The successful blacks, that doesn't make sense to them. They don't have the nerve or the guts."
In Houston, some of those most distressed by Charles are the African-American art professionals and patrons who have worked the hardest to carve out a place for blacks in the Houston art world; it may be because they have only just begun to gain some footing that Charles's work strikes so close to the bone.
When Charles left Houston in 1993 to take a professorship at the University of Texas in Austin, where he now lives, Houston had never had a black museum curator. In 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts's belated retrospective of Houston's most beloved black artist, John Biggers, led the museum to hire Texas Southern University professor Alvia Wardlaw as curator of the 20th-century collection. Her arrival coincided with a concerted, and so far successful, effort to increase minority attendance at the museum, and closely followed the formation of the city's first black patron's group, the African American Art Advisory Association, which purchases art to augment the museum's as yet paltry African and African-American collections. At about the same time, Project Row Houses, the most prominent of Houston's smaller arts organizations with a focus on African-Americans, was getting off the ground.
Still, while things were improving in some areas, they were getting worse in others. The Barnes-Blackman Galleries were faltering and about to stop presenting shows. While there's been talk of an African-American art museum, Houston has yet to sustain a serious, contemporary African-American gallery.
It was against this backdrop that Charles continued to show his increasingly extreme work in and around Houston. In 1996, he appeared at another explosive panel discussion, this time at the Dishman Art Gallery in Beaumont. About one-third of the audience was from Houston, the gallery director estimates, and the talk lasted more than three hours. A videotape of the discussion makes it clear that this wasn't just another placid art world gathering. "My heart is just pounding right now," one young woman is heard to say. "I'm just ... I'm mad."
"I started off mad," Charles responded. "And what should I do? I put my anger in my artwork." The barrage of questioning prompted Charles to remark, "I feel like O.J."
These days, Charles has learned to be very clear about his role as an artist. That role, he's said, is "to make art about the times that I live in and how I feel about it." But he comes across as too harried to be generous with his audience, adding, "I'm not making art to cater to any specific group. It's their loss." Asked if he can understand why some people might be troubled by his images, he pauses and says reluctantly, "Yes, on some level, I guess so."
Charles works hard to make his paintings look quaintly aged -- creasing, scraping and tattering them. To each one he affixes a Lincoln penny -- the only "coin of color," he points out. Charles justifies his antiquing process by saying, simply, "I like old things," or repeating his mantra, "the past is present." But the fetish-finish he gives the paintings also acts like a sugar coating, making his harsh images easier to swallow. Despite the fact that he sometimes contemporizes the images -- in one painting, for example, a pickaninny plays basketball above the caption "The NBA is TANTASTIC" -- they're designed to look like scenes from the not-so-distant past, to remind viewers of the mammy, jockey and Topsy icons that are now avidly collected by some African-Americans who see them as important historical artifacts.
The MFA's Alvia Wardlaw is among those who collect such objects, explaining her interest in such racist icons by saying "it's an effort to go through the stereotype. It's an effort to embrace black people. You want to give them a good home." But Wardlaw doesn't extend the affection she feels for her mammy salt and pepper shakers to Charles's work. Mammy, she say, is clearly a relic from the past; Charles's work is not. And one thing about giving collectibles "a good home," as Wardlaw puts it, is that it keeps them out of the public eye. The Blaffer show, on the other hand, places Charles's images squarely in view. "What does this say to the general public when they see those images?" Wardlaw asks.
She raises the question while going through a carousel of slides from the Blaffer exhibit, viewing them on a small screen in her office, shaking her head slowly. When she sees one piece, a cutout paper doll whose accessories include a gun, a hairpick, a necktie and a chicken, she sucks in her cheeks as if someone had told a tasteless joke and it would be equally tasteless to smile. And indeed, Charles's brand of humor often feels like a test for witchcraft: Laugh, and you're guilty. Don't laugh, and you're guilty. Wardlaw sighs instead. "This becomes, after a while, a one-note song. Okay, I get it. I really do. The redundancy of it is deadly."
Wardlaw's criticism -- that Charles's work focuses on proving the obvious fact that racism exists -- is one often leveled at the artist. But a few of the pieces in the Blaffer show, pieces Wardlaw hadn't seen, are more positive, though they still depict stereotypes. One such work is an electoral poster exhorting the viewer to vote for Aunt Jemima for president; another shows a mammy in Wonder Woman garb. "Michael is not a one-trick pony," Bacigalupi says. "The project has a goal, to critique a racist culture. But he uses a variety of means. Every great artist has a grand theme."
Though several people say they've heard HISD Special Projects Director Ellena Stone Huckaby, one of the city's most prominent African-American arts supporters, denounce the Charles exhibit, in an interview, the first thing she volunteers is that she's a personal fan of his work (though she makes it clear she thinks he's hit on a marketable formula). The majority of Charles's paintings fit right in with her own collection of memorabilia, she says, which she has been accumulating since "long before it was fashionable," and which she used to educate her children about their history.
"[Some of Charles's work] really energizes me," says Huckaby. "It reminds me of the strength and talent that black people have, to have risen from that level of degradation." But Huckaby has her limits: Norman Rockwellian mammies and circus-announcement minstrels are okay, but when Charles created a collectible of his own, a plate sold to raise funds for the Blaffer, Huckaby drew the line.
"I said I would not buy the plate," she says, remembering her comments at a Municipal Arts Commission dinner shortly after she received an invitation to order the work last fall. "For sure."
On The Side Dish, as the plate is titled, a dark-skinned man-creature in a pointy hat crouches on a circus animal pedestal, hands and tongue in a begging position, tail curling behind. "Alive and well" reads one text bubble. "The Greatest Blow on Earth," reads another. The image on the plate, which the Chronicle pertly called "a dish of pop culture," caused a minor stir and was one of the things cited in a brief letter from an African-American member of the Blaffer board who resigned earlier this year. That board member, Rogers Whitmire, also wrote that he disapproved of the Blaffer's programming. He failed to return calls from the Press.
If Huckaby feels energized by Charles's use of stereotypes, what was different about this one? "I thought monster and I thought Satan," she says. "I feel great about me. I feel great about me. And I wouldn't struggle to pay for this."
But as an educator who has long incorporated the arts in her work, Huckaby says she has another, graver concern about the Michael Ray Charles exhibit: "It has the potential of affecting a young child's self-esteem." Despite the Blaffer's lengthy educational packet, she says, there's no way to ensure that children will be prepared enough to see the show in context. "My children were privileged," she says of their prolonged exposure to historical stereotypes. "In a sense, they were anesthetized, immune to the pain that a child who is not prepared can walk in and receive."
Huckaby's concerns are repeated more forcefully by artist Elizabeth Catlett. "I think he's continuing the racism," Catlett says, then adds before abruptly discontinuing a phone call, "If any black children see it, they will be irreparably harmed. I'd rather not talk about it, okay?"
Texas Southern University student Janice McCloud Cumbess is one of the docents who will give children tours of the show. When she first saw The Side Dish, she says, she was "ready to boycott," fearing the exhibit would simply become "a big circus." But in many ways, Cumbess is Charles's ideal viewer, one who was willing to engage with what she saw. Her discomfort prompted her to do research on the artist and the black memorabilia on which he draws, and she concluded that the work reflects self-hatred as well as a reality about black life today. "I'm a little bit calmer now because in a sense I understand what he's trying to do," Cumbess says. "You have to really understand history to understand his work, or the image just takes over."
While some of the other docents felt uncomfortable giving tours of the show, Cumbess says, she herself sees her job as an opportunity to challenge the work, and she's determined that children will understand what a stereotype is before she's through. In preparation for a workshop she will conduct in conjunction with the show, Cumbess has been collecting positive ethnic and racial images, hoping the good will counteract the bad. "This," she says, "will help a child learn something about themselves: 'Is this what people are going to think about me? I'd better straighten up.' "
It's always tricky to require an artist to bear a responsibility to his race before his art -- and at 29, Charles is a bit young to shoulder that burden. That's one reason that when people talk about Charles, they're careful not to condemn him, or challenge his right to make his art. They're careful not to criticize his success, though the salability of his works is not lost on them. Still, there is a wistfulness in the way some people talk about Charles, as if he should be less caustic and more uplifting. "One would want him to have responsibility," says Wardlaw. "But one can't dictate that."
Charles does have some staunch supporters among African-Americans. Linda Reed, director of the African-American Studies Program at UH, says it's very important to confront racist stereotypes. "We've come far enough now that we can open up our can of worms and deal with things that we've never dealt with before," says Reed, who owns one of the plates Charles made for the Blaffer.
But to those who helped Charles early on, he is an errant, rather than a prodigal, son. "This is not the kind of work that I'm interested in seeing developed for a mass market," says Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe, who included Charles in that early Glassell show. "There are certain things I don't want to claim. Like the word nigger. Why would you want to own that?"
Barnes, who witnessed Charles's first confrontation with the figurine of a little black baby, recently attended a fundraiser for the Austin Museum of Art where a Charles painting was auctioned off. It was a recent painting of a black baby propped on white Mickey Mouse gloves, eyes wide open, hair spiked, bottom in the air. "It was not thought-provoking," says Barnes. "I hated it. It made me angry. It made me angry at the system that encourages that kind of foolishness." Barnes is curious to see where Charles will go with his work. "When is he going to get it all out of his system? I'm waiting for him to get around the curve."
The question of what awaits Charles farther down the road is being asked by more than just Barnes. At this very moment, as Charles's paintings hang at the Blaffer Gallery, one of artist David McGee's rather huge paintings hangs at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Titled The Homosexual, the painting is classically rendered, depicting a black man dressed in ecclesiastical robes, with a gap-toothed, evil grin. One could endlessly mine this work for meanings -- about homosexuality and the clergy, African-Americans and homosexuals, the power of the church.
But McGee has worked in one additional point. Unlike Michael Ray Charles, whose imagery comes from icons and characters cooked up by advertising agents, McGee has based his portrait on a real human being: Stepin Fetchit, the celebrated movie actor of the '30s and '40s whose name still conjures up the slow-shuffling, wide-eyed persona he perfected. By playing the arch-coon on-screen, Fetchit was able to enjoy, off-screen, the fruits of immense popularity: six houses, 16 Chinese servants, $2,000 cashmere suits and 12 cars.
If McGee's painting is a challenge to those of Charles, it is aptly complex. Biographers point out that Fetchit's characters always managed to screw up the orders of the white masters, and that working-class blacks imitated his walk and mannerisms. Even as civil rights groups criticized Fetchit for his pandering to white Hollywood, Fetchit was able to claim that he opened doors for other African-Americans in the film industry. Though Charles can't make similar claims for African-Americans in the visual arts, he does work in a field where much of the support, for any artist, still comes from whites.
Perhaps there is a curve for Michael Ray Charles to get around, or perhaps his fascination with race reflects the curve society as a whole is navigating. But either way, until the curve is rounded, history -- in the form of the specter of Stepin Fetchit -- will haunt Charles's accomplishments just as much as it is courted by his paintings.