At Long Last, Beauty

Rex Ray's newest collages stop hearts at Rule.

One of the weirdest twists in contemporary art over the last quarter-century -- other than increased interest in boring videos and self-indulgent performances -- is the way in which beauty has come to be denigrated. Today's art world is suspicious of beauty, and to say something is decorative is to make a pejorative observation. Conversely, ugliness is regarded as serious, and to call a work difficult is to praise it. How irrational. If I were searching for reason, however, I'd go to T-shirt slogans way before I'd go to someone in the art scene.

Luckily, I'm not the only one who sees beauty as still relevant to the fine arts, and despite the countervailing tendency to embrace ugliness, being beautiful is again on the rise in art circles. This makes sense, because beauty is a viewer-friendly attribute, and people who actually buy art rather than simply talk about it want something that looks good. After all, if they were more interested in art theory than in art itself, they'd be buying books, not paintings. All the theory in the world can't transform ugly crap into something worthwhile -- or, rather, something I'd be interested in devoting time to discussing or looking at.

No, I like beautiful things, although I have a fairly inclusive concept of what constitutes beauty (as longtime readers of this column will agree). I know a lot of people will be angered by what I've just said. But like art theorists who see excellence as being elitist, artists who hate beauty are motivated by the fact that they're incapable of achieving it.

Rex Ray, "Rhus Nocturnum," acrylic, oil and mixed 
media on linen.
Rex Ray, "Rhus Nocturnum," acrylic, oil and mixed media on linen.
Rex Ray, "Nucifer," acrylic, oil and mixed media on 
linen.
Rex Ray, "Nucifer," acrylic, oil and mixed media on linen.

What's brought these thoughts to mind is the gorgeous Rex Ray: Recent Work, currently at Rule Gallery and one of the best shows in memory. The Ray collages are all about beauty, which is more than enough for me. "Some have criticized my work as being too decorative," says Ray, "but I don't agree, because I'm interested in having people like them." And, happily, they do.

The artist will be familiar to some because he used to live in Colorado, and in the early '90s, he had a solo at the now-closed Hassel-Haeseler Gallery. Others may recognize his name from magazines like Metropolitan Home and Dwell, where his rugs have been featured. Still others will know him from his graphic designs for Apple Computer, Bill Graham Productions and David Bowie, as well as other contemporary musicians. Ray has designed many CD covers, including several for Bowie, and has also done collaborative prints with the rock legend.

Ray, who's had multiple careers as a fine artist, a designer and a graphic artist, was born Michael Patterson on a U.S. Army base in Germany in 1956. "I was a little military brat," he says. When he was three, his family moved to this country, but returned to Germany when he was still in elementary school. "Because my mother's family was German," Ray explains, "we lived half the time on an Army base and half the time in my mother's village."

In Germany, Ray became interested in high-style European design, especially the stuff coming out of Scandinavia and Italy that he saw in the shops, and in American contemporary art that he saw in magazines. "I did childish versions of Andy Warhols and hung them up in the hallways of our apartment building," he says with a laugh. In 1969, his family moved to Colorado Springs, where he spent the next twelve years. At Mitchell High School, Ray had the distinction of taking more art classes than any other student -- but academic subjects were another story. "I had to complete high school over the summer and took a class from Skip Munday at Coronado," he recalls. "And even though I had many art teachers, he's the only one I remember. He did things like have us do drawings in a dark room."

He took the pseudonym "Rex Ray" from a vaporizer he found in a Colorado Springs thrift store. "I have a warehouse full of Rex-Ray appliances," he says, "because everyone thinks I'd never heard of them, and they give them to me. I wish they would stop."

I first met Ray in the late '70s through neo-pop artist John Haeseler. It's hard to believe today that there was a cutting-edge art scene in Colorado Springs then, but there was. "We really were doing wild things -- the whole mail-art movement was going, and John Haeseler got me into that," says Ray. The group's center was the art department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where Ray was enrolled.

Ray and Haeseler both threw themselves into alternative methods of production, including rubber-stamping and photocopying. It was heady stuff for the times, and Ray soon realized that while there was a lot of interesting art going on, there was no audience for it in Colorado Springs. He decided to seek his fortune in California and moved to Los Angeles in 1981. But just weeks after arriving, he took a short trip to San Francisco, fell in love with the city and relocated there, where he remains to this day.

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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