Had you parachuted into San Francisco in 1970 and not known better, you might have thought the city had been overrun by mystics. Brass Buddhas and Hindu scrolls decorated bedrooms and dorm rooms. Alan Watts spoke to morning commuters live on KPFA. Concert posters, plastered across town, mixed Asian religious imagery with psychedelic visions; and the record album covers whose vinyl contents transformed the entire culture swept in a new kind of commercial surrealism that borrowed as freely from pop culture as they did from the occult.
Rex Ray fell directly into the residue of that era when he moved to San Francisco and began working at Tower Records in 1980. There, he not only honed his taste for musical eclecticism, but his immediate work environment – eccentric and freaky to say the least — laid the groundwork for a cut-and-paste aesthetic that would later fuel graphic designs he made for the likes of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Santana as well as a host of well-heeled corporations.
In his transition to fine art, he began by re-envisioning his own designs and the work of others – by cutting up magazines. But he soon developed his own iconography, repurposing and recycling appropriated and self-invented motifs in slick resin-covered panels, digital prints and large-scale canvases onto which he adhered a boggling array of cut-up shapes, textures and colors that cohere in seamless pictures that, if one were to generalize, resemble mash-ups of ’50-style home décor motifs, extraterrestrial floral fantasies and symbolist imagery. One of Ray’s reoccurring images, omnipresent eyes that appear inside leaves and tear drop-shapes, certainly brings to mind the latter; but cubism, dada, constructivism, kitsch, cartoons, psychedelia and surrealism also loom large as influences. Yet the P&D synthesis that emerges is uniquely Ray’s.
At one level his works are quite simple: The tear shapes and eye-like forms are the foundations of virtually every picture. They function, alternately, as blossoms, beacons and foliage. Out of this seemingly small vocabulary come endless variations which Ray appears to generate by subjecting stockpiles of paper to various treatments and effects: airbrushing, spatter, rollers, stencils, squeegees and so forth. The results — sliced up and reconfigured — are the raw materials of his signature imagery.
What’s truly new here – and what set me to reminiscing earlier — are three large-scale (76” x 76”) mandala collages on canvas: Ascomycular, Echinoculus, Phaeodarubus. They put a new twist on psychedelic-era graphics, and recall the unforgettable cover of Harvey Mandel’s LP Christo Redentor. Like the Mandel graphic and scores of other similarly inspired designs, this trio sears itself into memory by bringing about the same meditative state that the mandala itself was designed to induce, albeit with a decidedly more electric edge.
All of this makes for dazzling viewing, especially in the raw canvases where Ray’s handiwork is not blemished by the resin coatings that reduce his otherwise brilliant designs to finish-fetish. Yet even at its best, Ray’s work ultimately doesn’t register much beyond the retina. It doesn’t need to. He remains one of this era’s best designers, and it’s in that realm that he’s best appreciated. Call his work eye candy if you want to. Ray will most likely keep on cranking it out. And we, slaves to beauty and pleasure that we are, will keep on looking at it because we’re powerless to do otherwise.
— DAVID M. ROTH
Rex Ray: New Work, through October 30 at Gallery 16, SF.
Learn more aboiut Rex Ray.