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Michael Ray Charles (b. 1967)

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Smell No Evil, Speak no Evil, (Forever Free), 1996, Mixed Media on paper with copper penny, 25 ¾ x 39 ¾ inches, signed left middle; provenance: Barry Whistler Gallery, Dallas, TX


About the Painting

Michael Ray Charles’ work addresses fundamental questions of race in America, both past and present. Starting with his initial success in the mid-1990s, Charles’ work has been controversial because of its use of stereotypical and often derogatory portrayals of Black Americans drawn from historic mainstream advertising, packaging, graphic design, and audio-visual media. Not unlike some of the work of Betty Sayre and Kara Walker, Charles draws on images of Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Mammy, and minstrels to explore problematic notions about race which persist today. Charles appropriates and reclaims stereotypical racist imagery, and in the process diminishes its power over Black Americans by stripping it of its once purportedly benign aura. He makes brutally clear what others have attempted to obscure behind the guise of nostalgia. His works force the viewer to confront that these obviously misguided and wrong-headed images persist today in America’s subconscious and profoundly impact the collective perception of Black Americans.

Charles uses recognizable formal arrangements for his works. For example, works like Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Smell No Evil, Speak no Evil draw their formal inspiration from hand-painted circus and side show posters. Some of his works have a purposefully naïve quality that put us in mind of untrained folk or outsider artists. The rubbing, folds, scuffs, and tears lend an appearance of age and neglect, as if the paintings were recently uncovered from a long forgotten rural barn. Then we notice that each work bares a copper Lincoln penny, which calls our attention to The Great Emancipator. The penny seems to question whether the emancipation was complete and what future emancipations will be required.

The imagery and title of this work riff on a Japanese proverb which dates to at least the 15th Century and has been traditionally embodied in both the East and West as a trio of wise monkeys, one which covers its mouth, one which covers its eyes and one which covers its ears. In Western 20th Century culture, the monkeys seem less wise and often symbolize a criticism of those who through ignorance, cowardice or self-interest, chose to ignore or even condone injustice. By adopting these immediately recognizable images in Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Smell No Evil, Speak no Evil, Charles forces us to confront the very wrongdoing which his images depict.

About the Artist

Michael Ray Charles was born in 1967 in Lafayette, Louisiana, and graduated from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1985. Charles then earned an MFA degree from the University of Houston in 1993. As a Black man, Charles has sometimes faced criticism as his works have been misunderstood and often misinterpreted. Despite the controversy which often surrounded his work, Charles achieved critical and commercial recognition and success starting early in his career. His first solo museum exhibition was at the Albright-Know Gallery, Buffalo, New York, in 1997, and he was represented by Tony Shafrazi in New York City. He was featured in the first season of the PBS series Art 21: Art in the 21st Century. Starting around 2004, Charles began to withdraw from the mainstream artworld because of the controversial reception that his work continued to receive and because of the commodification of the contemporary art. In 2018, Charles won the prestigious Rome Prize, and in 2019 he had a solo show at the UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum in Austin, Texas. In 2020, a book celebrating thirty years of Charles’ work, Michael Ray Charles: A Retrospective, was published by the University of Texas Press. Charles is now returning to the mainstream with new representation in Paris and Brussels by Galerie Templon, which plans to hold a solo show of Charles’ work in March 2022. Charles lives in Texas. For nearly two decades he taught at the University of Texas Austin before joining the faculty at the University of Houston where is serves as the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Painting.


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