"Drawing is very central to the way that I work because it can be blown up, taken apart.... You can just keep on pushing it, like this infinite machine...."
Michael Ray Charles was born in 1967 in Lafayette, Louisiana, and graduated from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1985. In college, he studied advertising design and illustration, eventually moving to painting, his preferred medium. Charles also received an MFA degree from the University of Houston in 1993. His graphically styled paintings investigate racial stereotypes drawn from a history of American advertising, product packaging, billboards, radio jingles, and television commercials. Charles draws comparisons between Sambo, Mammy, and minstrel images of an earlier era and contemporary mass-media portrayals of black youths, celebrities, and athletes—images he sees as a constant in the American subconscious. “Stereotypes have evolved,” he notes. “I’m trying to deal with present and past stereotypes in the context of today’s society.” Caricatures of African-American experience, such as Aunt Jemima, are represented in Charles’s work as ordinary depictions of blackness, yet are stripped of the benign aura that lends them an often-unquestioned appearance of truth. Charles says, “Aunt Jemima is just an image, but it almost automatically becomes a real person for many people, in their minds. But there’s a difference between these images and real humans.” In each of his paintings, notions of beauty, ugliness, nostalgia, and violence emerge and converge, reminding us that we cannot divorce ourselves from a past that has led us to where we are, who we have become, and how we are portrayed. Charles lives in Texas and teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.