Michael Ray Charles'
new installation at the D Berman Gallery in Austin is a welcome
whoosh of air. An installation in a gallery that usually caters
to the tastes of wall art.
The work inhabits the whole space, which, for Michael Ray is a change
from his wall tarps and drawings. As well, it is refreshing that
Michael Ray Charles has a show in Austin, outside of faculty shows
at the University of Texas. But what I appreciate most about Michael
Ray Charles' body of work is that it has afforded me two real art
experiences, something which I rarely get the full excitement of
here in Austin.
I often lose interest in didactic artwork involving human polemics.
Most of the political work that I have seen lately is a repeated
blast of rigid ideas. Usually, it is opinions that are the most
rigid that are the most undigestable. But seeing Michael's work
when I was his student, I was frustrated that his work was about
race politics, yet it gave no answer to the questions that it
asked (that I could then dismiss as a one-liner). I thought he was
being elusive by not telling me his political stance. His work was
political, yet ambiguous, and the few images I saw in person did
not provide enough information to be complex.
Then, one evening, I went to the movies with Zoe Charlton and had
an art moment right here in Austin, Texas. I have become accustomed
to having to drive or fly somewhere else to have my art world made
larger. Immediately after seeing the film, we called him from the
outside Tinseltown South to congratulate him about Spike Lee's Bamboozled,
which is based on Michael Ray Charles' artwork.
By being woven into a movie, his work is able to affect a larger
audience than it would only in galleries.
And what I got was this: that there was no
one-liner in his very readable work that I didn't get. His art is
like stirring the soup of our experiences. He pulls out ingredients
that float by, which may have little to do with the flavor of the
soup. I realized his work may have much more to do with feelings
about complex experiences than about some overt political strategy.
He's just mixing up the soup and adding a little spice.
As a graduate student, someone once gave Michael Ray Charles a Sambo
doll and it upset him. Then he turned his anger into a huge collection
of objects and images of black American stereotypes. The body of
work is both humorous and painful, without any resolution. It is
exactly this lack of obvious answers that makes his work interesting.
Instead of becoming pedantic, Michael Ray freshens up a dialogue
that is in mortal danger of becoming stale.
The show at D Berman mixes it up even further. The obvious icons
on display are basketball jerseys made out of burlap coffee bags.
They are demarcated with famous basketball players' numbers with
drawings on them and cotton in them, hung at a height of 7 feet
high all around
the gallery space. A combination stage/ basketball court sets the
viewers up to face a black jazz singer, Pamela Hart, and her piano
accompanist, Carl, who performed songs Michael chose for the opening.
The audience stands behind the free-throw line painted on the floor,
and in front of a red theatre curtain. Behind the
singer is a picture plane, a windowpane, where the real goal would
be. Entitled "The Property Of..." the show asks questions
about authenticity and ownership.
Michael Ray is in the stable of artists at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery
in New York. By being a major player in the art world, Michael Ray
convinced David Berman to stretch his limits by showing an installation,
though the space could stretch further. Though the work uses metaphors
of basketball and entertainment, what Michael Ray's work speaks
to is the ownership of artist and art. Who owns the entertainer,
owns the music played? Who owns the player, the worker? Who owns
the artist and the art? When you see work in a museum show, "on
loan from the collection of...", whose work is it? The jerseys
are for sale, of course, but are priced by height rather than by
Despite the buzz about the opening and the show (the turnout was
fantastic and diverse), the feeling the artwork gives you is awkwardness.
Language cliches and cultural problems bark at you. You're short,
the jersey figures are very tall. You are entertained by the singer,
but crowded in by the installation and the curtain. The show is
orchestrated and you feel that you have been manipulated, but into
It becomes painfully clear that the real players in the crowded
court are Michael Ray Charles and his tall jerseys, and that everyone
else is very noticeably not a real player in the art world. The
work is readable, but thankfully, there is no punch line. Unless
you are good at laughing at
yourself, because the joke is on you.
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