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.

"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.

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