A new book from UT Press sets the record on Michael Ray Charles

A cogent, expansive essay by art historian Cherise Smith contextualizes Charles's provocative appropriation of stereotypical racial material


It took the modest, little Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum in Austin to give Michael Ray Charles his first solo exhibition in the United States in 18 years.

Now, from UT Press comes “Michael Ray Charles: A Retrospective” (300 pages, 151 color and 20 b&w photos; $60), a comprehensive presentation of the artist and his work.

The book’s launch will be celebrated at the Umlauf on Jan. 10, from 5 to 7 pm., with Charles and art historian Cherise Smith, who wrote the volume’s insightful and important essay, in attendance.

Chair and Associate Professor of UT’s African and African Diaspora Studies department, and Executive Director of the Galleries at Black Studies, Smith collaborated with Charles to select nearly 100 color plates, many of which receive full-page reproduction in a 122-page spread.

Not a catalog raisonné per se (Charles is only 53, after all, and very much actively producing) with its comprehensive bibliography and curriculum vitae, and Smith’s expansive essay, the book nevertheless serves as a definitive accounting of Charles’ career thus far and positions him within the context of the last several decades of contemporary art.

In lieu of the typical (and often dry) introduction, the book begins with the transcript of a lively public discussion between Smith and Charles presented in 2016 at the Richardson Symposium on Racial Masquerade in American Art and Culture at the National Portrait Gallery. A nice cameo: In the audience and joining in the discussion at the end is Zoë Charlton, who studied with Charles while a graduate student at UT. Charlton is now on the faculty of American University.

But it’s “A Study in Blackness and Black Identity,” Smith’s deep and illuminating 100-page essay, that sets the record for an artist whose work, artistic practice, and even his biography has often been misinterpreted by the art world press and general media alike. Smith unpacks how journalists from Texas Monthly to the Houston Chronicle to PBS’s “Art 21” have placed Charles within stereotypical boxes, reformulating his biography to meet “their limited imagination where black men are concerned.”

Smith also offer a rich contextualization Charles’ work vis-à-vis black contemporary artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Fred Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, Jeff Donaldson, and Kara Walker. And Smith dives into the debate launched in 1997-98 by artists Betye Saar and Howardina Peindell who questioned younger African American artists use of stereotypical icons. Smith also discusses Charles oeuvre in relation to Pop art and the appropriation techniques of the 1960s and 1970s, situating Charles within a broader art historical trajectory.

Related read: “Michael Ray Charles: Always Questioning”

We learn of much more than has ever previously been written about Charles friendship with filmmaker Spike Lee that resulted in a unique collaboration seen in Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2000), for which Charles served as art director, contributing many images used in the movie. Smith suggests that Lee may have modeled the film’s lead characters after Charles.

Smith likewise insightfully probes the racial politics of academia, from the “student-athlete industrial complex,” which centers on black athletes, to the complex role of the artist-professor. In 2005, Charles was the youngest African American faculty to earn the rank of the full professor at the University of Texas. He is now Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Painting at the University of Houston.

Throughout her lengthy essay, Smith laces a cogent unpacking of Charles’ practice of appropriation and his use of racist historical iconography — a practice that has been misunderstood by critics, fellow artists and viewers throughout the artist’s career. Smith writes: “With an archivist’s inquisitiveness and image recall… the grounds are laid for an artistic practice that appropriates found images, questions the narrative they circulate, and critiques the social, political, and economic vicissitudes of such circulation.”

“(Charles’ art) conjures up the histories in which it participates, the issues it addresses and the world it engages.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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