Michael Ray Charles was born in 1967 in Lafayette, Louisiana, and graduated from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1985. In college, he studied advertising design and illustration, eventually moving into painting, his preferred medium. Charles also received an MFA degree from the University of Houston in 1993.
His graphically styled paintings investigate racial stereotypes drawn from a history of American advertising, product packaging, billboards, radio jingles, and television commercials. Charles draws comparisons between Sambo, Mammy, and minstrel images of an earlier era and contemporary mass-media portrayals of black youths, celebrities, and athletes—images he sees as a constant in the American subconscious. “Stereotypes have evolved,” he notes. “I’m trying to deal with present and past stereotypes in the context of today’s society.” Caricatures of Black experience, such as Aunt Jemima, are represented in Charles’s work as ordinary depictions of blackness, yet are stripped of the benign aura that lends them an often unquestioned appearance of truth. “Aunt Jemima is just an image, but it almost automatically becomes a real person for many people, in their minds. But there’s a difference between these images and real humans.” In each of his paintings, notions of beauty, ugliness, nostalgia, and violence emerge and converge, reminding us that we cannot divorce ourselves from a past that has led us to where we are, who we have become, and how we are portrayed.
His paintings are not about people, they are about images. They are about the negative stereotypes that Blacks still buy into – the minstrel and the mammy-‘ and how they are updated, and (hidden in new images). These images are about the racial stereotypes that white people created and perpetuate, rather than knowing Blacks as (elaborate) individual human beings. Charles says ‘that the negative images about Blacks are hiding throughout American culture, just below the surface, on TV sitcoms and cartoons of every vintage and in advertising and sports.’ He didn’t invent them, and he is not singlehandedly perpetuating them. The images that Michael Ray Charles paints are not to confuse people, he is not creating these stereotypes. He is trying to seek and create an understanding’ among all people.
Michael Ray Charles takes old tired images, and, like a surgeon, tries to expose the cancer within them, and like a doctor, the artist’s intent is to heal us by showing us our scabs. Michael Ray Charles is trying to express to the world for all people to understand that blacks are human beings, and don’t deserve being pigeonholed through images which play and still play a major role in society today.
Michael Ray Charles is filmed on location at his home and studio in Austin, Texas. Through his studies of advertising, the minstrel tradition, and blackface, Charles seeks to deconstruct and subvert images of blackness through painting. “I’ve been called a sellout. People question my blackness. A lot of people accuse me of perpetuating a stereotype,” he says. “I think there’s a fine line between perpetuating something and questioning something. And I like to get as close to it as possible.” Pointing out items from his collection of memorabilia, Charles traces the transformation of stereotypes in his work.
Today, Charles continues to exhibit in national and international venues. His work remains the subject of books, magazines, and newspaper articles and is included in many public and private collection. Currently, Charles is a Professor of Art in the department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. He and his family reside in Austin, Texas.
Source: The Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Artcyclopedia.com, PBS, Ask Art and Art Net