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.

While some of the other docents felt uncomfortable giving tours of the show, Cumbess says, she herself sees her job as an opportunity to challenge the work, and she's determined that children will understand what a stereotype is before she's through. In preparation for a workshop she will conduct in conjunction with the show, Cumbess has been collecting positive ethnic and racial images, hoping the good will counteract the bad. "This," she says, "will help a child learn something about themselves: 'Is this what people are going to think about me? I'd better straighten up.' "

It's always tricky to require an artist to bear a responsibility to his race before his art -- and at 29, Charles is a bit young to shoulder that burden. That's one reason that when people talk about Charles, they're careful not to condemn him, or challenge his right to make his art. They're careful not to criticize his success, though the salability of his works is not lost on them. Still, there is a wistfulness in the way some people talk about Charles, as if he should be less caustic and more uplifting. "One would want him to have responsibility," says Wardlaw. "But one can't dictate that."

Charles does have some staunch supporters among African-Americans. Linda Reed, director of the African-American Studies Program at UH, says it's very important to confront racist stereotypes. "We've come far enough now that we can open up our can of worms and deal with things that we've never dealt with before," says Reed, who owns one of the plates Charles made for the Blaffer.

But to those who helped Charles early on, he is an errant, rather than a prodigal, son. "This is not the kind of work that I'm interested in seeing developed for a mass market," says Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe, who included Charles in that early Glassell show. "There are certain things I don't want to claim. Like the word nigger. Why would you want to own that?"

Barnes, who witnessed Charles's first confrontation with the figurine of a little black baby, recently attended a fundraiser for the Austin Museum of Art where a Charles painting was auctioned off. It was a recent painting of a black baby propped on white Mickey Mouse gloves, eyes wide open, hair spiked, bottom in the air. "It was not thought-provoking," says Barnes. "I hated it. It made me angry. It made me angry at the system that encourages that kind of foolishness." Barnes is curious to see where Charles will go with his work. "When is he going to get it all out of his system? I'm waiting for him to get around the curve."

The question of what awaits Charles farther down the road is being asked by more than just Barnes. At this very moment, as Charles's paintings hang at the Blaffer Gallery, one of artist David McGee's rather huge paintings hangs at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Titled The Homosexual, the painting is classically rendered, depicting a black man dressed in ecclesiastical robes, with a gap-toothed, evil grin. One could endlessly mine this work for meanings -- about homosexuality and the clergy, African-Americans and homosexuals, the power of the church.

But McGee has worked in one additional point. Unlike Michael Ray Charles, whose imagery comes from icons and characters cooked up by advertising agents, McGee has based his portrait on a real human being: Stepin Fetchit, the celebrated movie actor of the '30s and '40s whose name still conjures up the slow-shuffling, wide-eyed persona he perfected. By playing the arch-coon on-screen, Fetchit was able to enjoy, off-screen, the fruits of immense popularity: six houses, 16 Chinese servants, $2,000 cashmere suits and 12 cars.

If McGee's painting is a challenge to those of Charles, it is aptly complex. Biographers point out that Fetchit's characters always managed to screw up the orders of the white masters, and that working-class blacks imitated his walk and mannerisms. Even as civil rights groups criticized Fetchit for his pandering to white Hollywood, Fetchit was able to claim that he opened doors for other African-Americans in the film industry. Though Charles can't make similar claims for African-Americans in the visual arts, he does work in a field where much of the support, for any artist, still comes from whites.

Perhaps there is a curve for Michael Ray Charles to get around, or perhaps his fascination with race reflects the curve society as a whole is navigating. But either way, until the curve is rounded, history -- in the form of the specter of Stepin Fetchit -- will haunt Charles's accomplishments just as much as it is courted by his paintings.

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