It's no coincidence that Michael
Ray Charles is mounting an installation about basketball just as
the NCAA Final Four has wrapped up.
"It was strategic,"
the 36-year-old artist explains. Last summer, when gallery owner
David Berman approached him about hosting an exhibition, Charles
knew that the basketball buzz of early April would electrify an
artwork that poses tough questions about race and professional sports.
Charles knows full well the
power of timing and buzz and image. For the past decade, the Louisiana
native and University of Texas art professor has culled racist,
stereotypical images of African Americans -- Aunt Jemima, Sambo,
black-face minstrel performers -- and transformed them into confrontational
works of art. Most of his paintings look like advertisements or
magazine covers or vaudeville-like posters -- artificially aged
so that they look like relics of vintage pop culture.
In "100 A.J.," Aunt
Jemima coyly holds down her skirt as it blows up around her -- just
like that iconic image of Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year
Itch." In "Beware," a shirtless, shoeless black child
with cartoonishly huge red lips and white gloves dances and whistles.
Then there's the Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus series he
started in the mid-'90s -- paintings that resemble circus broadsides
for a fictitious troupe. Among them is an image of a rubber-lipped
child driving a watermelon car.
"The past is always present,"
says Charles. It's a maxim he believes in so strongly that for a
long time he had the phrase emblazoned on the wall of his studio
in his far North Austin home.
To be sure, Charles' complex
artistic tactics have brought him a lot of fame. Soon after he finished
graduate school in 1993, Charles' provocative paintings catapulted
him almost immediately into the upper echelons of the international
contemporary art world, and he has stayed there. Charles has had
a string of successful solo shows at influential galleries -- some
of which sold out -- and prestigious arts venues in New York and
Europe. His works show up in important museum exhibits. His paintings
sell for $25,000 or more, his sculptures up to $75,000.
"Michael's ongoing project
of creating a space and context for a discussion of racism make
him an undeniably important artist," says Don Bacigalupi, the
director of the San Diego Museum of Art, who organized a traveling
retrospective of Charles' paintings in 1997 that showed at the Austin
Museum of Art.
That show at AMOA was the
last solo exhibit Charles had in Austin. And while in the past few
years he has been shifting from painting to creating sculpture and
site-specific installations, he's never created an installation
here. It's not surprising, then, that when "The Property of
. . ." opened Thursday at D. Berman Gallery, some 250 people
thronged the high-ceilinged space and spilled out onto the sidewalk
in front. The mood was celebratory, even a little breathless --
a homecoming of sorts for an Austin artist whose international career
has kept his work far from Austin.
Despite the popularity in
his hometown and around the world, Charles' paintings have also
brought him a lot of flak from some who would just as soon have
those racist images remain in the past. And he's not the only African
American artist whose work has been in the hot seat.
Kara Walker, who crafts huge
silhouette wall cutouts of stereotypical plantation scenes, came
under attack after winning the MacArthur "genius" grant
in 1997. Specifically, African American artist Betye Saar, who is
in her mid-70s, started a public campaign against Walker's work,
calling it "young and foolish." Saar also took aim at
"Today there are young
black artists such as Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles who claim
to be political because they satirize the most cruelly racist images
of black people," Saar told an interviewer at the time. "Anyone
can do what they like as an artist . . . (but) these two artists
are benefiting from work that's not funny, not satirical, not ironic
-- it's a form of betrayal."
It's the kind of criticism
that vexes Charles. "It bothers me that my work bothers some
black people," he says with long sigh. "But I'm challenging
the idea of what black identity is by utilizing the very language
of (racial prejudice) to critique the historical language of (racial
prejudice). I make honorable art -- it's not malicious."
Then there was that collaboration
with Spike Lee. A few years ago, Charles served as an artistic adviser
for Lee's film "Bamboozled," helping to create the film's
promotional images, which featured a smiling black child eating
watermelon. African American activists complained; The New York
Times refused to run the ad. Nowadays, Charles offers a measured
response to the controversy: "One would think that if The New
York Times runs 'All the news that's fit to print' they would have
understood the goals and objectives of the film."
Plenty of people do understand
the gist of Charles' work. "I think some of the discomfort
that comes from viewing Michael's work is the way in which it forces
us to confront the legacy of racist ideologies," says Bacigalupi.
"Simply because the kind of racist pop culture images (that
Michael uses in his art) might now be invisible in our current culture,
doesn't mean that the ideologies they represent aren't still there.
Michael's work forces (the viewer) toward a further level of self-examination,
and that's unsettling."
A basketball walk-on
Though he's not critically
shy, the bespectacled father of three sons is nevertheless reserved
and soft-spoken at first, and admits that he's sometimes nervous
about being interviewed.
seem to be interested in what I eat or what kind of car I drive,"
he says softly with a smirk as he sits at a shady table outside
the Dog & Duck Pub on a recent Sunday afternoon. Charles is
an extraordinarily busy man, and he's got just enough time between
an hourlong trip to Home Depot to pick up hardware for the installation
and a long night in his studio for an interview, though a constantly
ringing cell phone interrupts.
Indeed, in talking to Charles,
you get a sense that he is in a constant, progressive dialogue with
himself, that his thoughts and ideas are continuously developing;
he just happens to share them out loud when he talks and paints.
And people hear him.
"Despite his shy personal
manner, Michael is not shy about what he wants his artwork to express,"
says Kenneth J. Hale, professor of art and chairman of UT's art
department. "He's not afraid of going straight for the jugular,
but he's still doing it in a sensitive way. He's constantly trying
to teach by raising difficult issues."
Charles says his work "is
very much about communication and images."
"I'm interested in how
words and images are manipulated -- how meaning shifts over time
-- by the mass culture. It's something I've been concerned with
for a very long time."
The swirl of media images
and marketing concepts is something Charles has studied closely.
Charles majored in advertising at McNeese State University, with
the hope of channeling his lifelong interest in art (he was always
a compulsive sketcher) into a viable career. After all, his lifelong
love of basketball hadn't panned out. "I was a walk-on at McNeese,"
says Charles, who easily towers past 6 feet. "I might have
been able to play in the European leagues after college, but there
was this very real reality of having to make a living, and I could
see the writing on the wall," he says, laughing.
A professional career in basketball
wasn't in the cards for Charles. Neither, it turned out, was an
Graduating from McNeese in
the depths of the '80s recession, Charles had no luck landing a
job in the advertising and public relations fields in Baton Rouge
and New Orleans. So he enrolled in the graduate fine arts program
at the University of Houston -- the only African American graduate
art student at the time and only the second to receive an MFA. Soon
after he graduated in 1993, UT came calling, and he and his wife,
Renee, moved to Austin. After all, the art world can be fickle;
tenure is forever.
Players and profits
One side of the red velvet
stage curtain is held back by a plain twine rope. Part basketball
court, part jazz club and part vaudeville tent, "The Property
of . . .," is a three-dimensional, multisensory critique of
how our culture transforms African American basketball players into
products, marketing them -- their identity, their talents -- for
a profit. And as in his paintings, Charles doesn't mince matters.
Stepping through the curtain
that is reminiscent of a circus tent, visitors to "The Property
of . . ." find themselves on a worn wooden floor with a basketball
court center circle painted on it. At the far end hangs an old window
positioned like a backboard -- "a window of opportunity to
reach another realm of being," explains Charles. Hanging from
the ceiling are burlap coffee sacks cut like basketball jerseys,
some with numbers painted on, some with startling images like a
grinning child standing on a basketball or a smiling Sambo. One
jersey sports the words "Black Art." More burlap jerseys
are stuffed with cotton and lay against the walls. And some are
joined together so that they are life-size and hang eerily from
the ceiling. A baby grand piano sits at center court. From hidden
speakers, the strains of Etta James, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald
waft through the space.
These are pretty direct images,
according to Charles. As he explains it, the coffee industry is
known for its exploitation of labor (much like the sports and entertainment
industries). Also, teams market cheap sports clothes at an enormous
profit to youths filled with hoop dreams, hence the worn burlap.
And then there's the entertainment industry. Like sports, it is
largely run by whites who benefit from African American performers:
Exhausted bodies, enormous profits, exploited African American talent,
the allure of celebrity. And the hanging body-size burlap jerseys
are a direct reference to the history of lynchings.
"We're a very visual
culture," says Charles. "But the masses aren't out there
deconstructing those images."
What we should see, Charles
maintains, is that black athletes are turned into commodities --
falsely promised fame and fortune by the entertainment and sports
industries but then used as mere products.
As Charles explained in an
interview a few years ago, "We have too many African American
youths who want to grow up and go into basketball. . . . This is
the only thing that America is telling them they can do and do well."
S. Craig Watkins, professor
of sociology, African American studies and radio-television-film
at UT, notes that, thanks to the huge expansion of television coverage,
professional sports spiked in popularity in this country in the
'60s and '70s -- the very same time the black consciousness movement
was gaining steam.
"Suddenly, we saw the
black athlete in a much more visible and prominent way," says
Watkins. "And to the extent that that became the prevailing
image of a successful African American, it's created this false
illusion that all the fame and fortune that comes with being a professional
athlete is easily attainable. We have had two, three generations
now of African American youths who have developed a naive devotion
to athletic prowess (rather than academic prowess)."
The synergy of hip-hop culture
and basketball has made this allure even more powerful, notes Watkins,
who is a friend of Charles. "Most of the (NBA) is now made
of players of what might be called the hip-hop generation, and that
adds even more of an aura of credibility to the illusion that success,
fame and celebrity can be easily achieved for African American youth."
Charles' biting artistic critique
doesn't interfere with his passion for the game. "I love the
sport," he says, but he nevertheless admits he didn't watch
the final game of NCAA Final Four because his loyalty to the Longhorns
-- and a busy schedule -- left him too disappointed. "I'm not
angry at the people -- the players -- who participate," he
says. "They don't construct the image that they promote --
It's constructed for them."
And that's a furious brew
of opportunity and exploitation. But then for Charles, tackling
the tough stuff in a most direct and uncompromising way is an obligation.
"(The problem) is larger than who we are all," he says.
"But we are all responsible for questioning it."
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