On first blush, the thought of doing a collage sounds fairly easy, craft-like and possibly nostalgic of something you did at age 14 from ripping out pictures and words from magazines. Looking at a Rauschenburg (“Retroactive 1, 1964”), or an old Picasso collage (“Still Life with Chair-Caning”), you get the sense that there is accessibility here – that you may in fact be able to pull off the playful act that is collage.
Wrong. Collage is hard. Very hard. While attending a mixed media workshop years ago, I attempted a collage and found myself creating a pathetic mash up of the aforementioned 14-year old’s collage, using “fine art” source materials versus magazines. It was incredibly humbling.
Enter Rex Ray. I first discovered Rex’s work years ago when I had the honor of representing him in San Francisco as a dealer for a short while. Not only are his collages brilliant in color and pattern – they are full of imagination, freedom and restraint that I can only remain jealous of. Looking at some of his larger collages on canvas, I wonder how he ever thought of the color combinations? How did he know when to stop? Where did those shapes come from?
While Rex did attend the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 80s for a BFA he did not get a graduate degree. Some of the best artists, I believe, sense immediately that graduate training in the fine arts is akin to snow shoe training in Palm Springs – curious, but not necessary. He proceeded to work in the famous City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, participated in a few performance art pieces in the city and kept a steady trickle of graphic design gigs.
One of the stories I love about Rex’s evolution as an artist, is the birth of collage in his practice. Over the course of his time as a graphic designer he would receive a lot of push back from creative directors and clients (which is the norm), so tweaking his designs became a sore spot. He turned to cutting them up at night and pasting them onto small squares of paper. He did this religiously for some time, as a sort of catharsis from the disappointment that can be working in a commercial and creative way. Later he had a party where a curator found his pile of cutouts. The curator was working for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at the time, and asked to take the stack of works for an installation in the “Bay Area Now” exhibit. Rex happily collaborated with the curator on this, and his trajectory of fine art + collage began.
Pan years later and Rex’s work has graced the walls of 5-star restaurants, corporate headquarters and many private collections. Rex has famously collaborated with other artists and musicians mostly designing CD covers and posters for shows. Some clients included R.E.M, Beck, Rolling Stones, U2, Patti Smith and most significantly David Bowie. He’s done graphic design work for the likes of Apple, Warner Bros., the New Museum of Contemporary art and Sony Music. His work is shown in art galleries and housewares boutiques. Jonathan Adler being the most exciting, as the decorative vibe of Rex’s work mixes well with the sense of humor in the Adler boutiques. Rex happily straddles this line, with consequence. Most fine artists would balk at the crossover, or at least feel they would be sabotaging one side of their practice – Rex has pulled it off seamlessly for years.
The posters he designed for Bill Graham presents are in the permanent collection of SFMOMA. Rex’s work was included in numerous museum shows and books whose titles include, “Blobjects and Beyond”, “Neo-Mod: Recent Northern California Abstraction”, and “Naïve: Modernism and Folklore in Contemporary Graphic Design”. You get the sense the academics haven’t figured out the precise definition or cubbyhole for his work – this is a good thing.
He represents the future of artists I believe, in the sense that he has never apologized for getting his work out there in any way, shape or form: the sanctity of the gallery world and art market are simply facets of the larger machine that is his practice. RISD grads are now given lessons on how to sell their work on Etsy – Rex was busy licensing his work and placing it outside the gallery walls over 20 years ago.
Regardless of the commercial aspect of much of his projects, his collage work still maintains integrity – you can not copy a Rex Ray. There are many imitators, though none can compare. His work is fiercely playful, something we should all aspire to. I’m so very grateful I had the opportunity to work with such a generous, talented and sharp person. If you are in the Bay Area, his work is up at Gallery 16 now through May 9, 2014.
Well done interview with Rex by Kathryn Eperson.
Beautiful monographs of his work: “Rex Ray”
DVD on Rex’s practice and history: “How to Make A Rex Ray”
Children’s Book Rex Illustrated (my kids LOVE it!): “10,000 Dresses”