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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Michael Ray Charles

Blackface Elvis, Michael Ray Charles
White Power, Michael Ray Charles
I don't very often write about living artists (except sometimes the barely living). And, except for the occasional child prodigy, it's even more rare for me to cover working artists young enough to have been my students. Michael Ray Charles graduated from high school in 1985. Michael Ray (no relation to his musical namesake, Ray Charles Robinson), is forty-six-year-old African-American artist. As might be expected, he is concerned with black art. In having written that line, I've also underlined what the art of Michael Ray Charles is all about--black stereotypes. That is to say, if an artist is black, so is likely to be the case with his art. At first glance, his work is jarring. It's intended to be. We're all familiar with black stereotypes, but not often do we have them blatantly propped up in our faces. And just to make sure we don't miss his point, Mr. Charles has taken up and explored all the most prominent ones--Aunt Jemima, nannies in general, Uncle Tom, Sambo, picaninnies, watermelons, minstrels, blackface, slavery, the NBA, the KKK, and dozens more of which this white guy was heretofore unaware.

Michael Ray Charles explores the origin of black stereotypes as far back as Roman art.
The fried chicken stereotype.
Sometimes Charles juxtaposes black stereotype against white stereotypes as in his black Colonel Sanders (right). Sometimes he takes on cultural stereotypes with works having to do with nannies, watermelons (above, left), and sexual elements. Some of Charles' work takes on stereotypes involving entire industries such as sports (the NBA), and entertainment (his blackface Elvis, top). Subtlety is not part of Charles' artistic vocabulary. "Scathing" is. Charles paints history as he deals with the false promises of emancipation in which blacks were freed from one kind of slavery only to be bound over to a societal enslavement enforced by a hated southern culture, Jim Crow, and the KKK.

Tommy Hilnigguh, 1999, Michael Ray Charles
Two stereotypes in one shot.
As might be expected, Charles' art often rubs people the wrong way. Even some African-Americans criticize him for preserving the very stereotypes his art rails against. Yet Charles considers his work most successful when it elicits these strong emotional responses, both pro and con. Film director, Spike Lee, calls Charles' work "cinematic"--posters for movies Hollywood would never have the nerve to make. Charles is combating the status quo. Yet before he can do so, he must first awaken the art world, then the rest of the world to the disgust felt by those of his race, not just with the negative images themselves, but with the white apathy which allows them to linger.

The dark side of the KKK


Click here for the
Michael Ray Charles Art21 Segment

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