rex ray

artist profile by dewitt cheng

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If “he who dies with the best resume” is true, then Rex Ray has already won, and he’s only 51. The San Francisco designer has created a host of distinctive products for major corporate clients; he’s also a fine artist blessed with an enthusiastic fan base, gallery and museum shows around the world, and an upcoming coffee-table book. “Whether we like it or not, we live in a Rex Ray world,” wrote art critic David Bonetti in 1992. Considering the designer’s ubiquitous posters, note cards, rugs, T-shirts, and gourmet chocolates; and the artist’s plethora of collages, digital prints, and paintings on panel and canvas, that sounds like an understatement: it’s his galaxy.

Born in Germany to a military family, Michael Patterson took an early interest in art and design, which developed later in college in Colorado; he adopted his memorable nom de guerre Rex Ray (derived from 1950s Rexall Drugs appliances) while involved with mail art, in which handles were customary. In 1980 he moved to San Francisco with $50, sleeping on lawns or in his VW and showering at Aquatic Park until his Tower Records job allowed him to rent an apartment. Fired from Tower, he walked uphill to apply to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he received his BFA. Graduate work, though, was problematic: it was the height of the AIDs crisis, friends were dying, and Ray’s monochromatic abstract work found little support at critiques that seemed increasingly irrelevant, so he left school a few units shy of an MFA. Clerking at City Lights Bookstore while learning digital graphic design, he made contacts for book and music design work that brought him attention and acclaim. After starting his own company, he created posters and album/CD covers for The Residents, Santana, Joe Satriani, Diamanda Galás, Iggy Pop, and, most prominently, David Bowie, who has commissioned many works; he once boosted Ray’s credibility at Bill Graham Presents by asking an exec for the poster artist’s autograph.

In 1997, Ray, who’d always considered himself “too feral to hold a real job,” found himself rebelling against the designerly strictures of his corporate success, “needing to do something very simple and relaxing, like knitting-something my hands could do without much thought-but employing a process uniquely my own. I had no agenda other than my own pleasure. So every evening I’d leave work by turning off the phones and computers and start cutting up magazines… I’d tumble my way through references to 20th-century Modernism, nature, the body, Fluxus, Surrealism, hard-edged abstraction, kitsch patterns, popular culture of the ’60s and ’70s, building a theme park of aesthetic liberation.”

The hundreds of collages on watercolor paper resulting from those quiet evenings have been joined by work in other media: medium-sized resin-covered collages on wood panel; archival digital prints; and large, kaleidoscopic, botanically themed collages on canvas- the tropics on psychotropics. Hand-painted paper and digitally printed patterns supplant the magazine cutouts in these larger works, but the exuberant playfulness and virtuoso execution remain: the swooningly graceful curve of one piece is picked up effortlessly in another, and figure and space dance a spirited minuet. Ray plays both trompe l’oeil and trompe l’esprit: the eye sees colors overlapping and creates space, and the mind creates metaphors from his exquisitely wrought ambiguities: eye and mind are fooled, and they adore it. While the blobby pseudopod shapes may draw inspiration from late Surrealism, the unmodeled color areas from Abstraction Expressionism, and the bright sensibility from Pop and the Pattern & Decoration movement, ultimately, these irresistibly witty abstractions seem, above all, formed and informed by the pleasure principle.

“Alectoria,” 2007, printed paper over linen, 76″ x 65″
Photo: Gallery 16, San Francisco

New work by Rex Ray could be recently seen at Gallery 16, 510 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA, from November 9 to December 30. www.gallery16.com (415) 626-7495

Also, in L.A. at George Billis Gallery, from October 9 to November 24, at 2716 S. La Cienega Blvd, in Culver City. (310) 838-3685