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Within the past five years, art historians and others interested in the intersection of race and representation have benefited from several noteworthy publications examining the role of visual culture, both current and historical, in the construction of American identity. To this list—which includes John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier’s Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (Liveright, 2015), Sarah Lewis’s edited issue of Aperture entitled “Vision & Justice” (Aperture 223, 2016), and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (Penguin Random House, 2019)—must be added Cherise Smith’s Michael Ray Charles: A Retrospective. Smith’s monograph is the first comprehensive study focusing on the work of Michael Ray Charles, one of the most important and provocative American artists working today. With a career spanning three decades, Charles has focused his work on the investigation and dismantling of racist stereotypes in American visual culture. His recent accolades include the prestigious Rome Prize (2018–19) and a solo exhibition in 2019 (his first in the United States in eighteen years) at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum in Austin, Texas. Addressing many facets of Charles’s career, Smith’s monograph is a welcome addition to this renewed recognition of Charles’s significant standing in contemporary American art. Her scholarship reveals the complexity of his engagement with images and symbols of antiblack racism and helps readers gain a greater appreciation of his controversial body of work as it relates to a range of art historical, social, and political contexts.
Smith’s monograph opens with a fifteen-page transcript of a public conversation that she had with Charles in 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Their conversation addresses Charles’s art historical and cultural references, from blackface performances by Bert Williams, to Norman Rockwell and Thomas Hart Benton, to ancient Roman Janus figures. Charles shares how his training in advertising has shaped the way he thinks about visual symbols and elements of design. He identifies “a sort of hidden language” in the visual culture of race in American history that he seeks to investigate and critique using a variety of formal strategies (2). The transcript also includes an informative conversation during the audience Q&A with art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw and artist Zoë Charlton about the issue of, in Shaw’s words, “performing the professorial identity” (11). Anyone in academia concerned about the disproportionately few faculty of color will find the exchange between Charles and his colleagues to be a valuable read.
Smith’s interpretive essay entitled “A Study in Blackness and Black Identity” begins after the interview transcript and a section including nearly one hundred full-page color plates of Charles’s work. With her essay, Smith presents a comprehensive examination of the artist’s work and career. Rising to prominence in the mid-1990s, Charles became part of a profoundly influential generation of artists that includes Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Fred Wilson, all of whom began to appropriate Black memorabilia and/or racist iconography in their work in a way that was dramatically different from previous artists. While Charles was in graduate school, a classmate gave him a small plastic “Sambo” figurine. Its simplified, unnatural features, ridiculous pose, and flaking paint prompted the artist to explore how the language of fine art might complicate such mass-produced racist stereotypes. Also referred to as “contemptible collectibles” (a term coined by African American studies scholar Patricia Turner), these commercial objects, such as cookie jars, children’s books, and money banks, used racist tropes created by and for white Americans. From the post-Reconstruction era through the early twentieth century, racist commercial objects and advertisements became a vicious tool of white supremacy intended to demean and intimidate African Americans and to justify antiblack violence. By the 1980s, however, African Americans became the predominant collectors. As Smith points out, African American artists had been appropriating Black archetypes like Aunt Jemima into their work since the late 1960s. The generation of artists to which Charles belongs took a radically different approach. These artists of the “post-soul generation” began to question the efficacy of transforming stereotypes into empowered icons (252n55). In an interview from 1998, Charles said, “I think about so many people whose lives have been affected by these images. A lot of black people have died and many are dying under their weight. That’s motivation enough for me to explore and deal with these things” (163).
Charles and Walker received sharp criticism for defying what Smith identifies as the “politics of respectability” within the African American art establishment, meant to ensure that art produced by African Americans unambiguously promoted positive views of Blackness and Black culture. Critics also questioned whether or not Charles and Walker were catering to a white-dominated art market. Smith rightly points out that this politics of respectability created “a false dichotomy between art-for-art’s sake and art-for-social good” (162). In her analysis of Charles’s work within this shifting terrain, Smith considers how parody and formal innovation heightened the ambiguity of racialized symbols. Whereas critics of Charles’s work have tended to focus on his subject matter, Smith reorients us toward the visual and material effects of his art. Her analysis of two early paintings, Sam (1992) and Cream of the Crop (1992), highlights Charles’s ability to evoke the pessimism and melancholy underlining the history of racism in America. Smith writes, “Indeed his paintings dwell in a melancholic mode where the psychic wounds of African Americans are continually reopened through unequal and discriminatory treatment and the continued circulation of stereotypical icons and narratives” (152).
Taking into account the role of facture, surface, and color, Smith explores how the flattened, mask-like faces in Charles’s paintings challenge ideas about race, realism, and representation. As an example, Smith points to Charles’s extraordinary painting of President Barack Obama, Black Is Black (2015). Practically illegible in its monochromatic darkness, the painting disrupts the viewer’s relationship to the image in a way that a photograph could not. Charles’s portrayal of black skin emphasizes the difference between a representation of a person and the depth and complexity of real skin tone. Smith writes, “This blurring of figure and ground becomes a metaphor for the inability to distinguish real people from the exaggerated caricatures that constitute stereotypes on the part of many Americans” (178). Later, she connects Charles’s formal language to the history of modern painting, noting how “Charles uses dark materials to render subjects illegible, to interrogate the disconnect between the color black and Black identity, and to challenge himself formally in similar ways that artists Ad Reinhardt or Francisco Goya did” (189–90). Smith’s interpretation resonates as well with the work of Kerry James Marshall, Amy Sherald, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, all of whom, like Charles, have explored the social construction of Blackness in their paintings of the figure.
Smith delves deeply into Charles’s intellectual and artistic commitment to investigating Blackness and Black identity. As a faculty member at University of Texas at Austin, he became deeply committed to Black studies and developed strong friendships with African American scholars and collectors. In 1997, Charles met Spike Lee, whose epic film Malcolm X was released to great acclaim just five years prior. Smith sheds light on the “intertextual exchanges” that informed the work of both Charles and Lee, who developed a working relationship (231). Both have backgrounds in advertising and share a fascination with Black archetypes, particularly those associated with minstrelsy, and their legacy in popular culture today. Smith identifies meaningful connections between Charles’s painting Bamboozled (1997) and Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000), pointing to the artists’ shared focus on the overlapping themes of power, commercialism, racial performativity, and deceit.
Underscoring the importance of several major African American collectors, Smith complicates the view that Charles simply reproduces racist stereotypes for an all-white art market. Emphasizing Charles’s intellectual commitment to the field of Black studies, she identifies Afro-Pessimism as a key concept informing Charles’s skepticism about racialized power structures in the United States. This skepticism is particularly apparent in his work dealing with the athletic and entertainment industries. Smith writes, “[Charles’s] works critique a system that, by regarding African American athletes merely as entertaining and money-making bodies, fails to account for their humanity and long-term prospects” (187). At the same time, Smith points to Charles’s activism through “politically inspired institution-building” during his time as a faculty member at UT Austin and how his academic advocacy intersects with his artistic practice (172). Smith balances Charles’s pessimism by showing how he views Blackness as never singular and fixed, and by highlighting his influential role as teacher and activist.
In her conclusion, Smith reminds us that “Charles’s work is not easy” (249). Indeed, since he began exhibiting his work in the 1990s, Charles has consistently challenged viewers’ expectations about the meaning of Blackness and representation. At a time when disturbing images of blackface appear on social media or are unearthed from college yearbooks, Charles’s work compels us to consider not only the effects of such hateful imagery but also how hatred becomes systematized and institutionalized through the visual. While Charles rejects the idea that his work might heal, he has said, “My work attempts to bring about change. In that sense I’m a political artist” (163). Smith demonstrates, in her model of slow, deliberate looking and integration of contextual and formal analysis, why and how Charles’s work continues to challenge viewers. In the end, she tells us that “careful viewers who take their time are amply rewarded, for the work conjures up the histories in which it participates, the issues it addresses, and the world it engages” (249). We are fortunate to have Smith’s monograph as a guide for thinking through Charles’s incredibly powerful body of work.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Randolph College
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