I lingered in front of Rex Ray’s Prednisporata (2013). Polychromatic shapes shimmer against a black sky. A firework-like flower bursts above that skyline of plump perfume bottles. Simultaneously hard-edged and fluid, the layers of colorful forms luminesce from the canvas, awaiting adoration, unflinching. I’m mesmerized more by the detail than the subject. Each filigree and wash of color hand-painted, each curving form cut out by hand. I move in very close to notice all the circular shreds of paper that compose the flower, each dot tinier than a pearl and perfectly round. I see no wrinkle, no blemish in their immaculate application.
I remember the first time I saw a real John Singer Sargent painting. At the Birmingham Museum of Art, a large, vertical portrait of a rich white lady from Venice hung quietly in a cool, darkened gallery. An unsurprising subject for Singer Sargent, Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon certainly surprised me. A long string of pearls drapes over her naked shoulders, her left hand idly fingering them. Her jewels shimmer against the coarse brushstrokes of her black gown and fair skin, so realistic I wanted to pluck them right out of her hands. I did what many must have done before me, I got very close to the painting, tempting my fate with the guards. The pearls were just dots! Tiny dots of white-yellowish paint. A simple mark, impeccably executed by the hand of someone with an eye for beauty. I could not dismiss her.
Rex Ray, Prednisporata, 2013, Painted paper over stretched linen, 72 x 72 inches; Courtesy the Artist and Gallery 16, San Francisco.
The flower in Prednisporata is Rex Ray’s string of pearls, beckoning, undeniable. Like the other large collaged-canvases surrounding it, Prednisporata is a monument honoring the confluence of beauty, craft, and fine art. I wonder, could these be portraits? They reflect a zenith of Ray’s prolific body of work, beaming proudly forward, as the artist himself battles illness. Prednisporata represents Ray’s unrelenting need to create beauty, to create that which will never fade, even as his health flickers and dims.
Dozens of smaller, handsome collages hang in company with Prednisporata, many encased in resin, though their sheen doesn’t camouflage their hand-painted coloring. Ray’s eye for composition is categorical and it takes some effort to appreciate each one individually. Together, they create a deluge of abstract patterns, nuanced colors, and perfectly-placed dots. Out of these smaller works, one in particular stands out. Sitting to the right of two rows of resin-coated works, the piece almost looks like an add-in, an afterthought. One needs to walk almost directly into the window to stand in front of it. Resin-free, its matte quality could easily pale next to its shiny counterparts.
Rex Ray, Minne, 2013, Painted paper on stretched linen, 18 x 13 inches; Courtesy the Artist and Gallery 16, San Francisco.
Comparatively, Minne (2013) is small, perhaps one of the smallest piece in the show. Where other pieces seem to operate more as motifs, Minne has a premeditated plainness that conjures a Bauhausian avant-garde here. The translucence of the layers of color evoke ethereality, the spiritual. Its complexity is subtle, yet palpable. I grasp for how to translate it into words. After returning to it several times, I surrender to its elusiveness.
(Image on top: Rex Ray, Xolodonia, 2012, Painted paper over stretched linen, 72 x 72; Courtesy the Artist and Gallery 16, San Francisco)