By Show and Tell
By Byron Graham
By Jamie Siebrase
By Bree Davies
By Zoe Yabrove
By Zoe Yabrove
By Jamie Siebrase
By Emilie Johnson
Ray's day job in Colorado Springs had been at Budget Tapes & Records, which is how he met Haeseler, an avid music fan. The two were in the throes of punk and new wave (you didn't expect them to be into classical, did you?). "John Haeseler was buying all this cool music, and that's how we got to know one another," Ray recalls. Even back then, Ray was very interested in music packaging. So after landing in San Francisco, he used his experience to get a job at Tower Records in its pre-chain incarnation. "I applied to the San Francisco Art Institute the day I was fired at Tower," he says.
He completed his BFA in 1988 and went on to the graduate program, but dropped out after discovering the school was into the anti-beautiful trip. "I was doing encaustic paintings," Ray remembers, "and I wanted them to be beautiful, and that led to cruel and vicious critiques." But the artist has gotten the last laugh, considering that his career is more distinguished than those of most of his former teachers and fellow students.
While still attending SFAI, Ray got a job at City Lights Bookstore, a gig that led to many of his graphics commissions. Because of City Lights, he became the designer for the High Risk imprint, which put out a series of books that dealt with authors who had AIDS. "We would race to get something published before the author died," he says woefully. It was at the bookstore that Ray met Bowie. "We really hit it off and talked for hours," says Ray, telling the story of how a Bill Graham executive went to Bowie and asked him to autograph a Ray-designed poster as a birthday surprise for the artist; Bowie told the suit that he and Ray were friends, and he wanted Ray to autograph a poster for him! "My status at [Bill Graham Productions] changed considerably after that," says Ray with a guffaw.
All of these influences -- from his childhood in Germany to his early work in Colorado Springs, his record-store jobs, his experiences at SFAI and his work as a graphic designer -- come together in the spectacular collages that Ray displays at Rule. The show includes literally hundreds of pieces, many on paper, others on board and canvas.
On the south wall of the gallery, Ray has created an installation called "Wall of Sound" that's made up of nearly 500 collages on small sheets of paper, which are hung end-to-end in what is called library style. The collages meander over the building's structural supports, creating a wave. These pieces were quickly and casually done, with Ray using images cut out of magazines. But the pictures in them are mostly obscured, the fragments used almost exclusively as abstract shapes.
The paper collages are essentially sketches for the ones on board and canvas, and scores of board collages are displayed salon-style on the north wall. In these, Ray uses papers that he decorated with paint and transfer printing, instead of appropriating the ready-made colors and forms found on magazine pages. Although all the collages are connected stylistically, here he employs an array of forms, including ovals, stripes and some shapes that are indescribable.
Most of these pieces have a mid-century, modernist feel, but Ray chafes when people call them retro -- and I think he's right in denying that label. Rather than looking retro, they actually have a neo-modern character and couldn't have been done until now. One of the aspects that makes them look new, and not old, is the high-gloss, poured-resin surface they share.
Ray has an instinctual sense for composition and a seemingly inexhaustible talent for great formal relationships. His skill as a colorist is remarkable. His color combinations are incredibly successful and unpredictable: yellow paired with pink, acid green with sky blue, and on and on. Many have called his colors psychedelic, and that's not too far off. Nor is it surprising from an artist working in San Francisco who also does rock posters.
The three large pieces on canvas, although obviously related to the paper collages and the ones on board, differ in several ways. While the other pieces are abstract, these are what Ray calls landscapes. They're not landscapes in the traditional sense, though, and instead are highly abstracted botanicals. In "Agglutinatus," a line of imaginary plants rises from the bottom of the picture. Much to the chagrin of Ray and gallery director Robin Rule, two of the large paintings, "Rhus Nocturnum" and "Nucifer," were shipped separately from the rest and did not arrive in time for the opening. That's really too bad, because they are among the greatest things in the show.
The influence of Venetian glass, particularly Flavio Poli's designs, Mexican art and even German kitsch is easy to see in the canvas works. These really look psychedelic, even more so than the smaller abstracts. Because the canvas resists the poured resin, Ray has sealed these pieces in matte varnish, which creates a very different surface effect that allows the character of the paper to show through.
It would be impossible to overstate how good Rex Ray is, because it's fabulous. Trust me, you don't want to miss it. And if you went to the opening, go back just for those last two canvas pieces.
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