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Michael Ray Charles or the art of making people think
michael-ray-charles-ou-lart-de-donner-a-penser - ARTACTIF
December 2023 | Reading time: 19 Min | 0 Comment(s)

On the return of Michael Ray Charles to the contemporary art scene after a twenty-year hiatus..

In the bottom right-hand corner of his paintings, just below the signature, you will always discern a penny. It's Michael Ray Charles's way of constantly questioning "what freedom is". The artist praised by Spike Lee and David Bowie, who had disappeared for almost twenty years, tired of his reputation as the enfant terrible of the South, of the eternal discussions about racism provoked by his works of art for sale when he also wanted to talk about art and painting, never stopped creating, taking refuge in the cocoon of his two studios, in Texas and Belgium. He has just returned to the forefront of the stage, shining the painted light of his theatrical spotlights once again on a disturbing work. In 2022, the Templon art gallery devoted an exhibition to him in Paris, In the Presence of Light, mainly made up of recent works in black and white, followed in New York in 2023 by Veni Vidi. A State of Mind, in the gallery's new space in Chelsea.


Of course, Michael Ray Charles's work is highly provocative and critical, and therefore merits serious and in-depth consideration. But it is first and foremost a work of art. The contemporary American artist, born in Louisiana in 1967, has always focused his work primarily on issues of race, stereotypes and social injustice, particularly through the prism of the racist imagery that has long been present in American popular culture. In the end, he is the king of mixing genres, in every sense of the word today. His almost Harlequin-like, sometimes grotesque bodies will surely have escaped your attention in the early 2000s: white legs, black head, black legs, white arms, masks, colourful and highly symbolic get-ups... But it's true that he is a painter, above all. And being labelled right out of the University of Houston in 1993 as the African-American who fights racial stereotypes was enough to give him pause for thought.


As Julie Chaizemartin wrote in her article in the October issue of the contemporary art magazine Artpress, describing the artist as an "archaeologist of black stereotypes", "Michael Ray Charles is one of those artists with an atypical trajectory, initially misunderstood, often because they were ahead of their time, before changes in society eventually gave renewed meaning to their work". But this didn't stop him from making a sensational entry into the art world in the early 1990s, even though he quickly became a controversial figure. "His art was labelled shocking, and people shunned the visual objects he was criticised for bringing to light, when it was now preferable to sweep them under the carpet," recalls the journalist and art critic..


Michael Ray Charles drew and painted in colour, in the style of 1930s advertising, images of Africans traditionally associated with consumer products (chocolate, shoe polish). Julie Chaizemartin refers to this as a "nauseating graphic ghetto". The artist's strategy of reappropriation questioned the way in which these images have been used to dehumanise black Americans. And questioned society's responsibility in perpetuating these stereotypes. Often using satire and irony to address these sensitive issues, Michael Ray Charles's art can be difficult to look at, and you may not find his paintings 'beautiful'. But then again. In any case, we don't have to be into decoration. These paintings are there to make viewers question their own beliefs and prejudices, which can be an emotional and intellectually disturbing experience. Nevertheless, in the face of criticism and new trends in American art, Michael Ray Charles chose to retire in 2004 to find ways of remaining true to himself.


It is no coincidence that he has chosen the Parisian space of the Templon art gallery, which represents him, to return in 2022: in France, he is hardly known. In the 1990s, he was mainly seen in the United States, Belgium, Spain and Germany. Good news: he's switched to black and white, acrylic and latex. To a more narrative and complex approach too. Because the new works of art for sale by Michael Ray Charles now on the contemporary art market are not just painted in a different style. Above all, they are painted with a different approach: his personal research into the formation of identities through culture and the universalism of discrimination.

What's more, the political context has changed: with the exhibition In the Presence of Light, Michael Ray Charles is exhibiting works produced in his studio over a period of almost 20 years, in the aftermath of Black Lives Mater. He focuses on black figures, particularly in the field of entertainment, underlining his own questioning through the famous painted light of the spotlight. Yes, his productions are spectacular and disturbing. Yes, they fascinate and question those unfamiliar with American culture. Yes, they are almost too smooth in form, with their shiny acrylic latex, and too rough in substance, with their truncated bodies in the service of a Grand Siècle. But it's this paradox that makes them so interesting. And also in their historical perspective, which goes beyond slavery.


The canvas entitled (Forever free) You Are Because I Am, painted in 2023, depicts a Roman marble bust of a black man wearing a white moccasin and observed through a white mask. This hijacked form of vanity reflects the artist's interest in the representation of black people in ancient Egypt and Rome. "Many black experiences have been suppressed from history. The presence of black people in Antiquity is not taught in schools", says Michael Ray Charles. He also questions the fact that many black artists depict the black body, pointing out the extent to which the representation of the black figure has evolved since the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and citing Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson and Archibald Motley, the first to depict Afro-American culture in painting.

Michael Ray Charles' work remains a significant contribution to contemporary American art and to discussions of race and discrimination. It continues to invite reflection on crucial social issues, and to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that persist in American society. Since Michael Ray Charles's art of blending images that have never been brought together is thought-provoking and engaging, it is bound to make an important contribution to the conversation on these subjects. But it's still art.


Valerie Susset Article written by Valibri en Roulotte

Illustration : Charles's "(Forever Free) Veni Vidi" (2022).

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