“What if the Jews never talked about the Holocaust?” asks Michael Ray Charles in the introduction to his catalog of paintings, Michael Ray Charles: An American Artist’s Work (The Art Museum of the University of Houston, 1997). Back in 2012, of this rhetorical question, I wrote: “[It] underscores an artistic exploration that delves deep into the history of commercial art stereotypes, which during the late 19th and early 20th centuries relegated African Americans to graphic ghettos comprised of Sambos, mammies and minstrels. … Charles argues that the once-ubiquitous existence of these characters is virtually unknown to blacks. He believes that graphic depictions of infantile, shiftless and buffoonish black men and women are artifacts that shed needed light on the conflict black people have in society today. As both a reminder and as a way to co-opt these negative portrayals, Charles … recasts ugly stereotypes in huge, satiric paintings that challenge the language of institutional racism.”
I was struck by Charles’ courage to confront the images that branded African Americans with slave-memory and Jim Crow–inspired imagery. The messages he conveys through his art, he told me, were not always welcome. “A lot of blacks don’t want to see images like mine; perhaps they bring up too much pain,” he said. “A lot of whites are embarrassed and feel ashamed by them. But ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It happened, and I feel it has not been dealt with.”
A new eponymous monograph, Michael Ray Charles: A Retrospective (University of Texas Press, 2019) by Cherise Smith, a curator and art historian, documents 30 years of Charles’ output and provides both an historical and contemporary context for his development. It further brings us up to the present both in terms of his work and the so-called post-racial America many hoped would truly exist with the election of Barack Obama. I recently asked Smith, who is also the founding director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies and chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas, to discuss her book and Charles’ contribution to contemporary art.
When I was first introduced to Michael Ray Charles’ work—probably over a decade ago—my first response was shock mixed with perplexity. There have been exhibitions (and the film Ghost World) that address the use of stereotypes or have been criticized for the deliberate or inadvertent use thereof. I had not seen art using these Jim Crow images so overtly, though. What was it that attracted you to Michael Ray Charles?
Michael Ray Charles’ work was first brought to my attention because of the controversy in 1997–1998 (see “An Auspicious Year, or Reconsidering the Stereotype,” pages 217–223). At that point I’d seen Kara Walker’s work; I had not seen Michael Ray Charles’. Then the letter was circulated (page 219), and all the discussion around it. Charles’ work was part of that. I wasn’t yet studying American and African American art, so I was outside of that controversy but looked on with interest. I found Charles’ work disturbing in a good way. From an image point of view, I saw that it was complicated and boundary-pushing. It worked against respectability politics and did so brazenly, and that was really interesting to me. As someone who was then just beginning to study African American art, I could also see that it was fully engaged with more historic African American art. He has as much in common with Palmer Hayden and Archibald Motley as he does Kara Walker. That engaged me.
In reviving the “coon” imagery, which admittedly is a collectable at flea markets today, how is the art attacking the problem of racist dehumanization?
This is a really important question that I address carefully in the book, particularly in the section “Contemptible Collectibles” (pages 194–200). As one example, I point to a tin sign for Hendler’s Ice Cream that is part of Charles’ personal collection. The sign features a stereotypical character, a cherubic pickaninny figure, depicted in cartoon style. The pickaninny is an image that was likely codified by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin and has been perpetuated for more than a century. “The pickaninny is just one archetype of many—Mammy, Uncle, Sambo, Jim Crow, the Native, the Faithful Groom/Lawn Jockey, Golliwog, and the Porter among them—that were employed in advertising and other media from the 19th century to today” (198). Such commercial objects garnered new waves of attention in the 1990s, and this included the attention of artists like Michael Ray Charles. He and fellow artists such as Robert Colescott and Carrie Mae Weems used stereotypical imagery or actual contemptible collectibles to challenge the assumption of respectability politics that African American artwork should produce only positive depictions, while simultaneously drawing attention to the enduring legacy of stereotypical images on the ways race is understood in the United States.
The advertising background that you describe in the book shows where his passion is rooted. But much of this kind of imagery is long absent from the mainstream? How do you think his reintroduction is impacting the public?
I don’t know how much “reintroducing” his work is doing. This imagery didn’t go away. It is subterfuge. It adapted, maybe got more nuanced, but thinking about the Aunt Jemima figure or Uncle Ben’s Rice character, the imagery has persisted, even during a period during which it might have been considered absent. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) really points to the role of advertising in this subterfuge, right? Charles’ riffs on the Arm & Hammer brand in Armed & Hammering (1995) and on the Atlanta Braves’ mascot in (Forever Free) Bamboozled (1997) demonstrate his keen use of advertising strategies. Both masquerade as old-time poster advertisements and use elements of advertising and design to confront the history of how stereotypical images, empire building, capitalism, racial hierarchy and merchandising have been bound together.
You’ve explored and write about how Charles’ work is received by the black and white communities. What is the reaction?
Well, the controversy surrounding the reception of Charles’ work back in the late 1990s was part of what drew me in initially. And the reaction ranged widely. His work has been called “exquisitely paradoxical,” and that classification certainly reflects his reception.
The fact that white people and celebrities were the main collectors of Charles’ art was proof enough to some that he double-crossed his race and overstepped the politics of respectability to which African Americans are supposed to adhere. But for others, including myself, the fact that he did not partake in the false dichotomy between art-for-art’s-sake and art-for-social-good—in other words, that his work refuses to settle in either space—is inspiring. That’s what makes it so important.
How has absorbing yourself in his work altered (or not) your own attitudes?
Immersing myself in his work has really reminded me what I like about art history and how privileged I am to do what I love. There are a couple questions or enduring problems that I come back to—like iconography, iconicity and whether stories can get separated out from images. Those are concerns I’ve had from the beginning of my career. Charles’ art allows me to investigate how images broker and enforce power.
I am most familiar with the minstrel tropes he has riffed on. I was taken by the Forever Free (Three Graces) sculpture that looks like bullets transformed into KKK references. How does this fit into what Charles is saying through his art?
In terms of Forever Free (Three Graces), the form goes back to the hooded figure, which he has traced both to images of the Christ figure as well as of the Klan figure. Sometimes he is working with them separately and sometimes together. The ideological and image bases of the sculpture are Classical columns. The interplay of referents across time periods, styles and industries—from 19th-century chromolithographs of Christ figures to 20th-century scenes of racial terrorists, and from Classical columns to military-industrial design—are all part of Forever Free (Three Graces). Those various referents make studying his work rewarding. It is so dense, it takes a long time to unpack it.
Some of his work is an exaggeration of once “accepted” comic (and commercially used) racial cliches; other pieces, like Red Tape Industries on burlap, is a simulacrum of the real thing. Is there a different meaning for the ultra cartoony vs. the subtle satire of Red Tape?
I don’t know if I have an answer for this one. I know that the notion of the simulacrum is something I don’t really tackle in the book. The ways his paintings masquerade as posters, for example. It is left wide open for future scholarship. I look forward to reading a future article on that topic.
Where do you think Charles’ work fits into the American art experience and the African American art heritage, particularly since this book affords even more “legitimacy”?
His work and career point to the role of regionalism in how the American art experience gets defined. Charles is a Gulf Coast artist and very much formed and informed by Houston and Louisiana. The important work going on outside of New York, LA and Chicago, even in major metro areas like Houston, often gets left out, as do the artists who choose to live there.
I’ve historicized his work in relation to Murry DePillars, Betye Saar, Robert Colescott and Carrie Mae Weems, among other artists. But how he’s informed by Palmer Hayden or Archibald Motley, for instance, warrants consideration. In terms of direct links to artists working in the African American art tradition, that’s another avenue I have left open for future scholars.
I used the “legitimacy” word guardedly. Do you believe legitimacy is important?
Yes. But I wouldn’t call it legitimacy. I would call it historicization. It’s important that Michael Ray Charles’ work is showing up in exhibitions such as Come As You Art: Art of the 1990s (Montclair Art Museum, 2015) and Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art (Contemporary Art Museum Houston, 2003) that explore recent art and Pop in the United States. His art deserves to be part of these histories.
Images courtesy UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum
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