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.

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."

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