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.

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.

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