At Long Last, Beauty

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.

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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia