The Professor Offers Excerpts From an Artistic Life, or Rex Ray X-Rayed

[a range of rex ray's collages, 9 in  total]

[a range of rex ray’s collages, 9 in total]

Rex Ray passed away the 9th of February 2015, a scant two weeks ago. Rex was the same age as The Professor [who is still stunned and reeling] so news of Rex’s passing hit home. The Professor first met Rex during the blobject days of the late 1990s; indeed, Rex’s work was highlighted in the Blobjects & Beyond book that The Professor wrote with his wife. For his 2007 monograph, The Professor was enlisted by Rex to pen the Afterword; the novelist and artist Douglas Coupland was to write the foreword, and the lead essay was to be written by the arts writer Michael Paglia. Toward that end, The Professor met with Rex in December 2006 at Rex’s studio in San Francisco’s Mission district. Those were healthier times for both of them and they talked intensely over a several-hour period. Rex occupied two floors of the building, living on the upper floor and working on the lower floor, along with his ever-faithful dog Skeeter. The conversation took place upstairs in the living room area.  Afterward, The Professor constructed the interview out of that conversation as a way of insuring that his own voice was downplayed in favor of Rex’s. What follows below are the key excerpts (the “rexcerpts,” if you will) from that conversation. The Professor’s initial impressions and the essential truths that he walked away with were one and the same: Rex Ray made beauty from debris, practiced great graphic alchemy even when employing familiar ingredients, and he ruthlessly challenged himself at a point in his career when he could have been coasting. He was one of the humblest creative forces that The Professor has yet reckoned with. An edited version of this interview was published in Rex Ray: Art + Design [Chronicle Books, 2007]. What lies below, therefore, is the full and composite record of their talk; what lies below is also a tribute and testament to Rex’s relentless drive to produce, to be fecund in his creative work even if he was in late-stage cancer treatment at the time. He wanted to see how far he could push it. As he battled his disease, it’s The Professor’s surmisal that what was important to Rex remained true: it was always important to him to get his message out, to share his work widely, and to assure those around him that if he could make it, they could too. According to Griff Williams, the owner.director of Gallery16 where Rex had regularly shown his work, Rex’s last words were “I’ve left the building.” So it seems he has, but he hasn’t left those like The Professor untouched by his way of being and working, and come to think of it, he left the proverbial building in a different state than it was in when he entered it. Put simply, he changed the way that The Professor sees the world. 

["new water," one of rex ray's signature artworks that visually celebrates fluidity]

[“new water,” one of rex ray’s signature artworks that visually celebrates fluidity]

ON GROWING UP IN COLORADO

“I went from winning art competitions throughout elementary school to graduating in the bottom 10% of my high school class. To reach this level of achievement, I took more art classes than any student in the history of the school, and I had the most absences.” [Laughter]

“I was angry about my parent’s dysfunctional relationship. My father went out for a pack of cigarettes one day and finally called home 2½ years later. I was 13 then so I wasn’t really aware of its profound effects. My mom held it together somehow but it was still a meager existence. It pissed me off but it also gave me my work ethic.”

“I distinctly remember when the 1960s suddenly went colorful: albums like Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Satanic Majesties Request all came out, and Andy Warhol’s flower paintings appeared in Life Magazine. By the time I was in 5th grade, I was doing fake Warhols and Jackson Pollocks to hang in our hallway. I’m still trying to fill my proverbial hallway now, and I’m still expanding on that era’s incredible graphic energy, both from a Pop Art and a psychedelic perspective.”

ON SAN FRANCISCO AND THE AIDS CRISIS
“I was lucky enough to get to San Francisco in 1981 about five minutes before AIDS took over and changed everything so profoundly. But I felt that San Francisco was where I was meant to be, and it has been. When I was painting at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) around the peak of the AIDS crisis, all my paintings were black and white. My professor Sam Tchakalian would just scream at me “COLOR, COLOR!” But my whole world was black and white. It wasn’t until people started getting healthy, that they started surviving AIDS, that I was able to let all of my color burst out. It was that abrupt.”

“While I was at SFAI, everyone there was remarkably anti-beauty. Obviously that did not suit me at all. I was into beauty then, and I still am. It wasn’t possible for me to see beauty in derogatory terms as other artists there seemed to. My work isn’t political, but I always think about it in those terms. I designed the first t-shirts and posters for Act Up! (in San Francisco), way before they switched to their now-familiar Gil Sans logo, Silence = Death. The entire Act Up! group in those days was barely a roomful of people and I wasn’t there very long. Maybe I was paranoid but it seemed that suddenly there were people at meetings that I’d never seen before suggesting bombs and things like that. That was when I got out.”

[the already-missed, dead-all-too-soon rex ray, who lived his work and worked his life]

[the already-missed, dead-all-too-soon rex ray, who lived his work and worked his life]

ON BOOKS AND THE CITY LIGHTS EXPERIENCE
“While I was at SFAI I got a job working at City Lights Bookstore. I lobbied to design book covers for them and I worked with Lawrence Ferlingetti (City Lights’ founder and Beat poet legend). It was the perfect place; it spoke to my inner radical revolutionary child. Amy Scholder started at the same time and we brainstormed about the new, younger generation of writers that we would get to write for us—Gary Indiana, David Wojnarowicz, Cindy Carr, Cookie Mueller, among others.”

“Amy and Ira Silverberg started the imprint High Risk Books; Ira was an editor at Grove who was in William Burroughs’s crowd, and Pete Ayerton, owner of Serpent’s Tail in London, joined in. I was the art director. Our subject was transgressive fiction, fiction in the age of AIDS that normally would not get published. We got the first books out in 1990. High Risk only lasted about five years but it was remarkable to be a part of a project so related to what was going on culturally. It gave me a real sense of purpose.”

“One night when I was working at City Lights, [filmmaker] John Waters came in right at closing. He was a little wasted, and I closed the store and we sat and talked. He said, “I have to tell you a secret” he said. “The first time I came into the store I stole a book!” and I said, “John, so did I!”” [Laughter]

ON GRAPHIC DESIGN
“I wanted to be an artist from the beginning but I did graphic design first. I worked full-time for an ad agency in Colorado where they had me pasting up Wendy’s coupons for a long, long time.” [Laughter]

“By the time I graduated from SFAI in 1989, I had no job skills and massive student loans. I fell back on graphic design. It was something I knew and I’ve always been a little too feral to hold a real job. [Laughter] Luckily, I had some club connections and I started doing their flyers. I befriended the musical group The Residents and went on to design album covers for them. It was instrumental in my development because The Residents were probably the first group to get samplers and to embrace computer technology. It put me way ahead of the curve in Mac-based design.”

“There are a lot of conventional design rules that I manage to skirt (certain grids for example). Because I’m self-taught, except for some basic production techniques, it has been relatively easy to do this. I would love to see more self-taught design happen, and in some areas such as the skate community—Barry McGee, Ryan McGuiness and other skateboarders who are showing in galleries—this is already happening. They are doing amazing work.”

ON ROCK MUSIC AND BILL GRAHAM PRODUCTIONS
“Being from the Colorado suburbs, punk rock was an important component of my life, a wonderful expression of the anger that I felt as a teen. I used to buy punk 45s without picture sleeves and I would Xerox photographs and make my own punk picture sleeves for them.”

“Right when I got out of SFAI, I began lobbying Bill Graham Presents (BGP) to do their posters. [FYI Almost all of the big acts that came through San Francisco seemed to come through BGP] But it was slow going. I was shown the door many, many times. I was showing them computer-based work and they wanted hand illustrations exclusively. I kept emphasizing that this was where the world was going, and after two years they hired me and my first poster for Primal Scream was done in 1992.”

“I pursued BGP partly because I thought their cachet would get me into the music industry. The pay at BGP was absolute crap, the contracts were horrible, and there were some really contentious approval processes. But there were also a couple of times when I could play the hero. Other artists didn’t deliver so I banged the jobs out and they began to appreciate me. But what really put me over the top with them was the Bowie thing—the magic moment when he asked them for my autograph. That was when the whole thing turned around. The president began speaking to me and the other perks suddenly came.”

“Because my graphic design knowledge was prior to computers, I could overcome a lot of the problems that showed up on the way to finished film. I knew the work-arounds—the old-school techniques. My earlier work with nightclubs, an anti-capitalist subculture that I was already immersed in, had offered graphic freedom. Because the money was never great, I compensated with volume. [Laughter] I was doing them so fast and frequently that after they left my house, the next time I’d see them they would be in the gutters. I thought the music industry would offer the same freedom but with a better paycheck. But rock-and-roll had already become this huge corporate entity that bowed and scraped to convention. The lone exception was David Bowie.”

ON WORKING WITH BOWIE
“When I was 14, I bought my first David Bowie album: Alladin Sane. I remember listening to that record, staring at its big beautiful cover and thinking “I want to design record covers someday.” So it was completely crazy when I was finally designing for Bowie some 25 years later. Bowie let me do what I did, he defended it to the record companies, and I was compensated handsomely. At the same time, I knew that Bowie never worked with anybody for very long. When I designed the first poster for him, I thought, “This is my one time to work with Bowie, fabulous, I am so happy!” And I had a version of that same thought every time another Bowie project comes through the door: “This is the last one, this is it!” But it hasn’t been. It has been a remarkable run.”

“With my first Bowie poster done, I also thought it was likely the beginning of the end of my graphics-for-hire career. I’d reached the goal that I’d set so many years ago when I was looking at Alladin Sane for the first time; now I’m designing for Bowie. Achieving my little teen-age dream was what led me to transition out of graphic design and into fine art.”

ON FINE ART: THE COLLAGES
“As the graphic design business grew, my clients got bigger and the money they offered rose in direct proportion to the decline in creativity they required. [Laughter] The collages were my rebellion against that. I wanted to do something juvenile, mindless and rudimentarily creative. Not for anyone else. Not for exhibit. Just for my own pleasure and to surprise myself. So that I could get back to that magic of making something out of nothing. The collages were an intimate exercise that I began by turning off the computers, unplugging the phones and drinking a glass of wine or smoking a little pot. Then I’d sit down and crank out collages. I’d do them to silence that internal critic we all have—the inner voice that judges, raves and berates us. I usually did between three and ten a night whether I wanted to or not. It was a discipline.”

“Sometimes I’d intentionally do things poorly and let them get to a finished state, knowing they were bad. Sometimes the nights when I didn’t feel like doing them was when I did my best work. Either way, I’d put them in a box the next day and not look at them again. When I finally opened up all of the boxes months later, I put the collages up in a giant grid. I was completely knocked out. It was the sort of revelation that I had waited my whole life for. People saw some of the collages and they wanted them. I went back to my marketing nature and thought about how these collages could be delivered as an absolutely complete product. Ideally, people could pick one they liked, buy it, and hang it on the wall. I began experimenting with different framing techniques, decoupage with resin, plywood planks and panels. Technical considerations took a few months to resolve and then that was it.”

“What I love about the collages, and what seems to surprise some buyers, is that they are relatively affordable. I have placed them in retail environments (and online such as at jonathanadler.com) so people don’t have to go to a gallery unless they want to. I really felt that there was an untapped audience—people who don’t go to galleries—that I could reach.”

ON THE BIG PAINTINGS
“I plan to to focus more of my energies on the big canvases (6’x10′, 7’x12′) because they remain really challenging; I have practically operatic struggles working on those beasts. On average, they take at least a couple of weeks to complete. Maybe it’s just my own idiosyncratic nature but I have to challenge myself habitually. If I don’t, I get bored and boredom is creative death. So I intentionally create new visual problems just so I can find a way to solve them. For me, the bigger the work, the more intimidating it is. It was a particularly challenging threshold to surmount when the work got bigger than my physical self. I’ve tried all sorts of different methods of working on the big paintings, like sketching my idea out beforehand or drawing it directly on the canvas. None of them worked. Nothing is as appealing as just diving in. If I have a sketch that I want to translate into a larger work, it feels like either I’m merely following instructions, or I already did the good piece in the form of the sketch, so what am I doing trying to make it bigger?”

ON CURIOSITY AND CREATIVITY
“I’m a true child of pop culture—I love the next big thing and I always want to know what’s next. It is crucial not to lose that innate curiosity. Without giving drugs too much importance, an altered consciousness can be helpful. There’s a lot of cultural conditioning that goes on today, restraining all of us from doing certain things that might seem silly, benign or useless at the time, but that may have significance in the end. Having an altered state of consciousness is one of a number of techniques that help break down those barriers, allow those things to happen, and provide an opening for other ideas to emerge. But I also know potheads who do the same thing over and over for years and get no real growth or evolution out of it.”

“People always say to me, “You work so hard!” But it doesn’t feel like actual work to me! I I get tired, but it feels good to do it—it feels like living. There are so many crazy colors in my work. I often start with colors that I hate and then I wrestle with them. I’m a warm color kind-of-guy, but in the last two years I’ve made it my mission to conquer the plum hues. When I started going into the blues, I came to the conclusion that there aren’t any colors that don’t go together. There is no such thing as clashing colors!” [Laughter]

“I have been inspired by the activism of Angela Davis and John Lennon, the artful stylings of Paul Rand and Raymond Loewy, and by the dual art and design careers of Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti. Most of all, I was inspired by Andy Warhol and the many Pop artists who came out of commercial traditions.”

ON FEARLESSNESS
“When I was in school at SFAI it was terrifying to talk about your work during the critiques because you knew people were going to shoot you down. What I needed to learn was that you can fail and still survive, and that you can learn great things from those failures; ultimately that failure can be a positive thing. I’m not as confident as I am fearless. I have a lot of doubt and a lot of insecurity when I go into a given situation. But I don’t let it stop me. It took me a long time to find that. I went into therapy because I realized my fears were holding me back. So in 1996 I joined a band called Plain with three other artists. None of us knew how to play. We were just big brash noise; The Sex Pistols were Julliard compared to us. We royally sucked. We would play gigs and people would throw shit at us and scream. But I survived and my immense fear of doing things in public was partly overcome.”

“I still carry the hunger and insecurity that comes from never having a stable job. Even though I have a little empire now and in my rational mind I know that my finances are okay, there is still a part of me that is always scraping by. These days, no one can remain an outsider for very long. Outsider culture is being devoured by the capitalist machine even as it looks for new things to chew up. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted success, too, and I still can’t believe that this book is about me, that people occasionally recognize me on the street and that I’ve got money in the bank. It’s remarkable.”

MY MESSAGE(S)
“These are the messages [really a pocket manifesto] that I try to embody:

– Use fearlessness to overcome doubt and insecurity

– Don’t let others shoot you down

– Question authority. Fight the power. These last two are more important than ever before because the powers-that-be are so big and their authority so vast

– Treat people the way you want to be treated

– Put your questions out to the universe and they will be answered

– Lastly, whenever I go to schools, the first thing I tell the students is to leave. Get out! By the way Steven, can I come talk with your students?” [Laughter]

For the record, Rex visited a number of The Professor’s classes at CCA between 2007 and 2014. His visits were similar in that he was always fearless; he was up for discussing any and all subjects with the students, an ideal classroom environment in which to conduct the coursing of curiosity and courting of creativity—and that’s why they call him The Professor.

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