Over the course of two-and-a-half days in September, Michael Ray Charles created a monumental painting on site at Austin’s Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.
“Forever Free (Desire)” stands 20-feet tall by 13-feet wide. It hangs on the end wall of the Umlauf’s vaulted gallery in a position vaguely reminiscent of an altarpiece.
The painting depicts layered silhouettes of slave ships, the sails and rigging creating a giant fractured silhouette. On top of the ships, Charles painted portraits of black children rendered in pointillist white dots. Watermelon slices in red and orange replace the children’s mouths.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of when the first enslaved Africans arrived to America in 1619 on a ship to the British colony of Virginia. “Desire” was name of the first American-built slave ship, launched in 1637.
Charles told me he had been thinking not just about the 1619 voyage and the Desire, but also the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America in 1860, its wreck only recently discovered in Alabama’s Mobile River.
“It couldn’t be about one ship,” Charles said of his massive painting. “It had to be larger.”
Charles arrived in Austin from his home in Houston on Labor Day, bringing with him the enormous canvas that had been soaked in water and dirt to give it an aged look. Once the canvas was hung, he cast his sketch of “Forever Free (Desire)” onto the canvas to trace the outline of the tangle of ships before he set about painting. He spent hours on scaffolding and ladders to paint the upper portions of the canvas, finishing literally minutes before the exhibition’s opening. The smell of paint pleasantly permeated the evening reception.
10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 7
The exhibition at the Umlauf is the first solo show Charles has had in the United States in 18 years. In addition to “Forever Free (Desire),” the show, organized by Umlauf curator Katie Robinson Edwards, includes about 20 other works, drawings and paintings that the artist made recently while on fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and a suite of prints produced at Austin’s Flatbed Press in 2017-18.
His bold, uncomprising work demands attention. Charles appropriates racist, shameful pop culture images — Aunt Jemima, Sambo, pickaninnies, blackface ministrels — and radically alters them to devastating critical purpose.
During the two decades that Charles taught at the University of Texas, his art career happened elsewhere. Not long after finishing his MFA at the University of Houston in 1993, and taking up the teaching post UT, Charles had solo shows at galleries in New York and Europe; private collectors and institutions bought his work and he gained press attention too. In 1997, the Blaffer Museum in Houston put together a comprehensive exhibition of Charles’ work. Filmmaker Spike Lee wrote the introduction to the catalog, declaring Charles “a major artist,” adding, “please take notice I didn’t say African-American artist.” The Blaffer exhibition traveled to the Austin Museum of Art (now the Contemporary Austin) and other museums around the country. In 2014, Charles left UT to take a position at the University of Houston where he is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Franz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Painting.
Charles’ aggressive use of caricature and racial stereotypes has always riled many. Viewers squirm. And many misread Charles’ work. After the rush of attention in the 1990s and early aughts, Charles chose to work with galleries, institutions and collectors in Europe, not in the United States.
“I was tired with the way I was written about (in the U.S.) — with how critics assumed I was self-taught and not a trained painter or how they called me things like a wild child,” Charles said. “I became an artistic ex-pat.”
An exception to Charles self-imposed artistic exile is “Forever Free (Ideas, Languages and Conversations),” a permanent site-specific installation in UT’s Gordon-White Building which is home to centers studying minority cultures as well as the African and African Diaspora Studies Department. A swirling cloud of wooden crutches hang from the ceiling in a vaulted entryway.
On the sculpture’s debut in 2016, Charles told me that he saw the wooden crutches as representative of the black scholars who did the best with whatever a white-dominated university establishment handed them. “Black studies has been a bit of a wounded entity within the academic structure,” he said.
And while UT’s investment in creating an academic department for black studies was estimable, Charles said “it wasn’t enough of a space or a presence.” His cloud of wooden crutches, he told me, “is a cultural critique.”
Included in the Umlauf exhibition are a couple of shelves of objects from Charles massive personal collection of what is sometimes called “contemptible collectibles” or “Black Americana” — figurines, ephemera, tins of toothpaste or shoe polish — all of which feature some iteration of racist stereotype of people of African descent.
Charles studied advertising design as undergraduate, and his acuity with the tools of promotion and persuasion are sharp. At the beginning of his career, Charles started placing a penny in the corner of his paintings near his signature. The penny is only the dark coin of U.S. currency, and bears the profile of Abraham Lincoln, a liberator of slaves. Charles places the penny heads up, but upside down.
And he names many of works with “Forever Free,” a kind of fictional brand he’s created, the irony being of course is that people of color are not free from malicious prejudice.
“We keep revisiting the same problem,” Charles said. “Otherness is supposed to more tolerated now, right? But intolerance is stronger today than ever.”
“Michael Ray Charles” continues through Jan. 10 at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, umlaufsculpture.org/michael-ray-charles-forever-free