Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rex Ray

    The artwork of San Francisco graphic designer Rex Ray has become a prolific mediation on the abstract and dynamic nature of fluid forms. Begun at night simply as a personal and therapeutic visual antidote to his highly self-edited, computer-based commercial work during the day, his art projects (small-scale paintings and collages now numbering in the thousands) came from humble origins; scissors, paste and fashion magazines. Ray brings an unusually tight sense of craft and precision to the compositions of these smallish, highly colourful, and always-playful artworks. 


     The result is a fusion of art and design sensibilities. Biomorphic-, teardrop-, and nature-based forms comprise the bulk of Ray's vocabulary, and paintings such as 'The New Water' appear to have been created mid-drip. Its immediate communication of the joy of movement is balanced against its momentarily arrested state; the delight of composing just for the sake of composing is immediately apparent. Ray creates forms of indeterminate origins-familiar but not identifiable-that offer the viewer a sense of spontaneous liberation. The question is not why Ray does such things, but why most other graphic designers and painters do not.


     A San Francisco native, Rex Ray is an acclaimed graphic artist whose visual works include paintings, collages, prints and photographs. Ray’s recent work employs 1950s-styled organic shapes inspired by Pucci designs. His posters are characterized by intense, jewel-like colours, and their stylistic variety reflect his ability to adapt lettering, sly symbolism, portrait art and free-hand drawing to unique artists and music.


     For Rex Ray, the joy of making and viewing art is his continuing motivation. Drawing inspiration from his acknowledged influences of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Abstract Expressionism, organic and hard-edged abstraction, pattern and textile design, and Op Art, Ray playfully combines these formalist concepts with decorators tips gleaned from lowbrow publications and sources of popular culture in his pursuit to create beautiful things. Gracefully bridging the gap between fine and applied art, he distinguishes himself in each realm.


     Ray’s work exudes beauty with a subversive edge that stems from an attitude grounded in alternative subculture. He was an early admirer of punk and new wave music. Music holds a special place in his life. A former record store employee and devoted collector, he has worked with leading contemporary musicians, contributing designs for many album covers and concert posters for artists such as Radiohead, Bjork, Nine Inch Nails, Deee-Lite, and David Bowie.


     In the art world, design is a troublesome concept: purists will tell you that design is too close to "real life," too "utilitarian" to adorn a gallery's walls. Rex Ray, who's also well known for his graphic design work, is that rare artist who manages to maintain credibility with both his commercial and his gallery projects. He has an uncommon facility with visual balance and slightly barbed beauty, which are in full evidence in this expansive solo exhibition. 

     The centrepiece of the shows is usually a wall covered with dozens of collages. These modest works on paper are composed of images and text (surgeon general's warnings, splashy headlines) from glossy magazines that have been cut into ovals, squares, and vaguely atomic-age shapes and arranged into mesmerizing and pattern-intensive abstractions. The fact that these are recycled from the finished product of graphic designers for mass media magazines adds a sly irony to the project. 


     Elsewhere, Ray displays paintings that employ similarly 1950's-styled organic shapes and collaged elements that sometimes bring to mind early paintings by Lari Pittman, another artist with designer roots. The electric quality of his paintings bears some relationship to the artist's use of digital media -- another hot button in the art world -- well illustrated with a suite of luscious computer-generated prints that exude the almost cosmological glamour of a rain-soaked street reflecting coloured city lights. Like many of his works, they reveal that Ray may blur boundaries between media, but he can seemingly effortlessly squeeze out images with a universal appeal.


     Rex Ray was born in Germany in 1956. He lives and works in San Francisco’s Mission District. Before moving to California in 1981, he was a long time resident of Colorado Springs and he still maintains his connection to Colorado. In 1988, he received a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute, CA. As an accomplished and award-winning graphic artist, Ray has produced distinctive and striking designs for books, magazines, posters, and compact disc covers, including recent projects for Steven Spielberg and David Bowie. 


     His paintings, collages, and designs have been widely exhibited at galleries and museums, including San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Jose Museum of Modern Art, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. He is an accomplished graphic designer with a client list that includes Apple, Sony Music, and The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York. In 2009, Ray’s work was exhibited in a solo show at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver and was the subject of a full length PBS Documentary “How to Make a Rex Ray”. Ray’s rock poster work was featured in the exhibition of The Art of Design at SFMOMA.




Rex Ray