A year ago this month, prolific Houston painter Dick Wray passed away of complications due to liver illness. To honor the man who was known as one of the founders of the Houston art scene, the William Reaves Gallery is showcasing select works in its current exhibition, Explosive Color/Dynamic Paint. The exhibition opened this past weekend and will run through February 4.
In addition to the show, the gallery has produced a full-color catalog with four essays written by Wray's friends, colleagues and contemporaries. They all describe the artist in a very similar light: He was a big man with a big personality, a character, to say the least. Wray was born in 1933 in the Houston Heights and studied at the University of Houston's School of Architecture. Wray is described as having a life-changing trip to Europe in the late 1950s that would influence his painting style going forward. Aside from his time in the war and a few other travels, Wray lived and worked as an artist in Houston until he died last year.
He is the epitome of a "Texas artist," despite hating the title, as described by friend and assistant professor at the Allbritton Art Institute Katie R. Edwards. Edwards goes on to say that Wray was "resentful" at being thrown into the Texas art category as he saw himself as more of a loner, working in solitude with his art. If there were a category Wray could be placed into, it would be the abstract expressionism movement.
Friend and art collector Earl Weed describes the first time he saw Wray's paintings and found them irksome, "messy explosions" with no apparent rhyme or reason. Upon my initial examination of the work, I could understand this reaction, although do not agree with it. I had seen Wray's art before, but never live and in person, so I was excited for this weekend's preview. Upon walking into the William Reaves Gallery, I was awestruck. Online jpgs do this man no justice.
The small entranceway to the gallery houses various sized pieces with a common color pallet. Rich reds, browns and dark greens cover the canvases in thick globs of oil paint. I would not describe these paintings as being overly bright, as the colors are a muted, matte tone. In much of his work Wray used a method where he would cover the canvas with black and white lithographs, random drawings of hands, faces or even just lines. He would then shellack the canvas with layers and layers of paint so that the original drawings became a mere afterthought. Or were they? I found that my eye kept searching for more in the background, as if these black and white drawings were begging to be pulled out of the chaos of color.
Enter the main space of the gallery and the sheer scale of Wray's work is enough to stop you in your tracks. The walls are filled with oversized canvases "exploding" with color, shapes and incomprehensible forms. You can see his various evolutions more clearly in this room. His palette moves from dark shades to brighter tones, more inviting. Some of them even seemed happy. On the far wall hung my favorite painting in the exhibition, a bright yellow and orange piece that felt like spring and summer and fall all rolled into one; Houston's perma-season visualized.
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The William Reaves Gallery has as its mission to display Texas-based artists only and generally focuses on works from the beginning of the century through the 1970s. However, the earliest painting in the current collection dates only back to the 1980s. The gallery found his later work just as interesting as his earlier. "Much of his early work is in private collections or, sadly, a lot of it was destroyed in a fire," Gallery Director Sarah Wilson says. She goes on to describe Wray's art as only getting better over the years. Unlike some, Wray did not rehash the same work over and over; he changed and evolved.
Bill Reaves, the founder and president of the gallery, says this show is one of "the greatest one-person shows" they have had on display. "His work is consistently good," Reaves continues.
"Consistent" doesn't seem to be a word that Wray knew or used in his paintings, though. The collection of work is an amalgamation of so many different emotions, it is almost dizzying. I will agree there is not one bad piece on the walls of the William Reaves Gallery. Dick Wray was a tour de force in the Texas art world and deserves all the accolades the gallery has bestowed upon him and this collection.
Dick Wray's Explosive Color/Dynamic Paint will be on display January 6 through February 4 at the William Reaves Fine Art Gallery, 2313 Brun Street. An opening reception will take place on Saturday, January 14, from 5-8 p.m. Additionally there will be a gallery talk with Wray's friends and scholars on January 21 from 2-4 p.m. For more information, visit www.reavesart.com.