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The Meta of the Matter: Rex Ray's Retrospective at Gallery 16

Rex Ray, installation view of Wall of Sound, 1995–2000, painted and cut paper on four hundred and twenty 8x10 inch paper, courtesy Gallery 16

Rex Ray: We Are All Made of Light

Gallery 16, San Francisco

May 4 – June 30, 2017 

by LEORA LUTZ, JUN. 2017

True to its form, Rex Ray’s work is one of those cases where the “photo” doesn’t do it justice. It photographs and reproduces so well that you would almost be completely satisfied with seeing the work online or printed on paper—until you know the truth of the matter. 

The original works are painted paper collage, and the intricacy and subtlety of the process defy logic with their exacting precision. Viewers to the work are often bewildered to the extent that they wonder whether there’s a “trick” or a catch: as in, “there must be some way he works quickly.” Yet for Ray, there is not just method to the madness, but rather comfort and excitement, fueled by the endless possibilities he discovered one evening in the late ‘90s. That moment set the course for a prolific yet short-lived career as a fine artist. 

Ray passed away from complications with lymphoma in February 2015. His estate is handled by Gallery 16 in San Francisco, where a retrospective titled Rex Ray: We Are All Made of Light, includes original collage and print works on paper, canvas and panel, on view through June 30.

Rex Ray, Wall of Sound, 1995–2000 (detail), courtesy Gallery 16

Rex Ray, Cyphellae, 2006, painted and cut paper on oil on linen, 76 x 76 inches, courtesy Gallery 16

Spanning a 30 foot wall of the gallery, Wall of Sound (1995-2000) is a monumental installation of over 400 eight- by ten-inch collages hung in library style. The color palette is muted and neutral, comprising shades of tan, black, grey, white, brown, and burnt reds. Oxidized dark beige pages covered in text from German fashion magazines or vintage books challenge the viewer to decipher their meaning in relation to the adjacent painted shapes. Across from Wall of Sound is Cyphellae (2006), a 76- by 76-inch pastel cream colored field populated by soft celery green and bright vermilion red medallions accented with delicate “beaded” swags. 

It’s a serene work, and can easily be dismissed as “pretty”—until you get close to it. Suddenly the boggling reality of Ray’s work becomes apparent: like the hundreds of collages across the way, this work is comprised of hundreds of pieces of paper adhered to a stretched linen canvas. Each paper dot is a created using a hole punch, then applied one-by-one in succession; each curve that makes up the medallions (or kaleidoscopes) are strips and wedges of painted paper.

Rex Ray, Clavaria, 2006, painted and cut paper on oil on linen, 84 x 36 inches, courtesy Gallery 16

The work of Fred Tomaselli comes to mind; particularly the representation of beaded strands that both artists create using collage and assemblage techniques. Tomaselli focuses on issues of psychology, and “big pharm” capitalism, incorporating pins and pharmaceutical pills embedded in resin. Either through osmosis or appropriation, Ray started titling some of his paintings with “fake anti-depressant names,” (Pyzinerol I and II), quasi-mirroring Tomaselli’s use of pills as material. 

However, Ray predominantly uses plant names for titles of his larger works, such as Cyphellae, which are craters found in lichen, and Calvaria (2006), a fungus. Lichina (2004) also named for a genus of fungi, is the most elaborate painting in the exhibition, with very little negative space, and a multitude of stems, leaves, and futuristic pods in a dizzying array of colors. He celebrates visual imagery as purely aesthetic, and as a powerful tool for beauty.

Rex Ray, Lichina, 2004, painted and cut paper on oil on linen, 50 x 50 inches, courtesy Gallery 16

Ray’s aesthetic is akin to mid-century modern—sporting stylized two dimensional flatness, distinct sci-fi floral and atomic motifs, striking color combinations and faux nature-based textures; it’s a visual ethos that re-permeated the late 20th century with the DIY and designer decor boom—and is still popular now. 

His work has been embraced (and commissioned) by his contemporary Jonathan Adler, and has been widely used on textiles such as rugs and home furnishings, as well as books, printed paper goods and print-on-demand wall decorations. Yet this commercial use of his work is perfectly in line with what he wanted: to make art, make a living at it, and not to let it get too precious. Fiitingly, it makes sense to position him among like-minded predecessors such as British artist and textile designer Lucienne Day (1917- 2010), graphic designer Alvin Lustig (1915 –1955), and Charles and Ray Eames (1907– 1978 and 1912–1988). 

The story of how he embarked on his career is a humble one that many people can relate to.  

“One day [circa 1981] I got in my car with about $75 and drove to California . . . I literally drove from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Tower Records, and I walked in and said, ‘give me a job,’” he mentions in a Post + Grant video interview. “Now I look at it and think I was out of my mind, but I was young and naïve and I was not going back.” Tower hired him after much pestering, but later fired him, at which point he applied to the San Francisco Art Institute and began to establish himself in the SF art scene.

As a queer artist during the height of the AIDS crisis, Ray’s work was colorless and somber in response to the dark times of mourning and activism. It would seem that grad school was no place for the rebel, and he left the Art Institute before receiving his MFA. Hoping to allay his enormous student debt, he gravitated toward graphic design and made a name for himself creating music posters for the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and other pop notables of the day. Around 1999, as he hit a moment of dismay with his commercial ventures, he stumbled across one of his design campaigns in a magazine, and took scissors to it, arranging it the way he would have liked it. The rest, as they say, is history. From that moment on, he committed “to making a collage a night.” He made them out of internal necessity, with no intention of them being shown. These collages later became Wall of Sound“I did it as a way to get away from computers.” 

It’s also important to point out that Ray’s graphic design practice began its formative years during a time when the internet was the “World Wide Web.” When he started making art, the first San Francisco tech bubble burst (approx. 2000). What followed was the rise of in-home internet access, desktop publishing, advancement in electronic graphic design tools, and marketing as we know it today. Ray’s imagery was perfectly poised at the right time and in the right place. As a result, he experienced a steady flow of opportunity as an artist, but maintained his core desire to create beauty, hoping to imbue thought and poetry into his audience's daily lives. 

Rex Ray, We Are All Made of Light, 2017, installation view, courtesy Gallery 16

Additionally, Ray was a member of the San Francisco Poets Theater. According to his friend Kevin Killian, who wrote an essay for the Gallery 16 exhibition catalog, Ray had a “talent for scene-stealing.” But his wasn’t the kind of talent that stems from the historically (stereotypical) macho male Abstract Expressionist painter image. Rather, it is important to look at Ray’s life in comparison to other queer activist artists, such as Keith Haring, who said “the point of making art was to communicate and contribute to culture.” Consequently, Haring’s images are not just stick figures, just as Ray’s work can be seen as more than just flowers. 

In 2013 (when Ray’s health was in the balance), he and Killian collaborated on a mural commissioned by Levi Strauss for Gay Pride Month. Killian wrote a poem to accompany the project titled Secret Life of Plants. It begins: “Before we knew we were gay, before we were boys or girls or gender in flux continual, a kaleidoscope, the plants knew, deep in their underground.” In sense, plants and kaleidoscopes are not only Ray’s signature subjects, but can be understood as symbols of queer lives blooming, participating in the cycle of life.  

Leora Lutz

Leora Lutz is an artist, writer and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her art practice stems from a conceptual framework with a desire to bring ritual and routine closer together. She is a regular art writer and critic for several national and global publications both online and in print as well as the author of published exhibition essays and research papers.

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