The Art of Darkness

Paintings of racist images have made UH alumnus Michael Ray Charles a star in the art world. Some say his Sambos and pickaninnies have a healing power. But others claim all they do is hurt.

When Don Bacigalupi became director of the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery a year and a half ago, one of the first exhibits he put on the gallery's schedule was a survey of the work of African-American artist Michael Ray Charles. In one sense, it was an obvious choice: Charles is the most successful artist to come out of Texas in years, and he spent the formative years of his career at UH. On the other hand, it was a potentially dangerous choice: Bacigalupi's colleagues warned him that the show would be "too hot to handle" because of the baldly racial imagery that Charles employs. But Bacigalupi was fascinated by the power of Charles's works, and decided to go ahead with the show. "Why else would I want to be a curator?" he says now. "To show pretty pictures?"

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.

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