Rex Ray is a prolific and brilliant artist who easily crosses the divide between commercial design and fine art and between digital and handmade. Based in San Francisco, Rex is known for his commercial work for the likes of David Bowie, R.E.M., and Apple and for his fine art collage work on paper, canvas and resin boards. More dichotomies abound in Rex Ray and his work: lover of beauty and teaser of the edge, modernist leanings and total originality, simple shapes and mind-blowing intricacy, sweetheart of a man and badass talent. Buoyed by his love of loud music and guided by his steady internal compass, Rex Ray is quietly charting his own course and changing the world of art.
Topiary collage on resin panel by Rex Ray
Your large collage paintings, including the 9′ by 25′ Discolazia at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, are stunningly intricate. It’s hard to believe you don’t have these works sketched out in advance to the smallest detail, but I understand you prefer to just dive in and layer as you go.
I tried sketching the large works out beforehand, but found that it kind of sucked all the joy and spontaneity out of the process. It felt as though I was just following instructions. So, I now just START and let whatever happens happen. It often feels a bit like a wrestling match between the painting and me, but it keeps the process challenging and there seem to be far more surprises (and mistakes!) along the way.
Discolazia collage painting by Rex Ray
Early childhood impressions seem to have a huge influence on the work people create later in life. I understand your army-brat years growing up in Germany exposed you to modern and decorative furniture designs and art, particularly from Scandinavia and Italy. Can you recall some of those early impressions and how you think they’ve carried over into your work?
I grew up in the sixties and seventies, so those eras and the visual culture they produced had a huge effect on my sensibilities. I remember living in Germany when I was 10 years old and was fascinated by a few modern design stores. My home environment wasn’t particularly ‘contemporary,’ but I loved that stuff! I would make my own pop art paintings and hang them on the walls of my bedroom. I can’t explain the attraction, but I seemed drawn to modern art and design at a strangely early age. I was a strange child, and I think the work I was doing then is not so different from what I’m doing so (very) many years later.
collage No. 2655 on resin panel by Rex Ray
Untitled No. 4 pigment print by Rex Ray
You talk about the profound influence the peak of the AIDS crisis in the early 80s had on you, at a time when you were studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. Tell me about your abrupt switch — and your artistic outlook — from working entirely in black and white during that dark time to full color once it seemed the tide had turned and people started surviving AIDS.
That shift wasn’t conscious, and I only noticed it in retrospect. The work suddenly went from being very conceptual and dry to being very playful and colorful. I think it had as much to do with the change in social climate as it did with me leaving school and being free from all those constraints.
Real Tears pigment print by Rex Ray
You left school during your graduate work because you were not interested in their anti-beauty fixation and heavy criticism of your pursuit of beauty. When did you feel your decorative aesthetic and personal creative vision forming, and were you confident in your path all along?
The decorative aesthetic and personal vision seemed to be there all along. However, it was difficult to build confidence in that particular environment. I think eventually I found the confidence to rise up against it and leave. At that point (late ‘80s) I started my freelance graphic design business, which sustained me for many years. Supporting myself, on my own work, built my confidence. I only worked with the most creative clients I could find, which allowed me great freedom. There are countless ways in which my current artistic practice draws from what I learned in commercial design.
Mbongothe collage on linen by Rex Ray
You wrote a wonderful piece on your website about working at Tower Records when you first moved to San Francisco that is part autobiographical snippet and part love letter to music. Do you work to music? And do you think about musical metaphors in your art — melody, harmony, riffs, reverb, crescendo, and maybe sampling?
Because I worked in record stores for many years and I grew up in the heyday of rock and roll, I cultivated a serious addiction to music. I have tens of thousands of records and CDs. I play all sorts of music in the studio all day and night. Loudly! I can refer to certain music for whatever inspiration I might need – free jazz and/or krautrock when I need to free myself of any inhibitions, punk rock when I need to get a lot of work done. I choose the music to suit the mood! Again, the influence of music in the work isn’t entirely conscious, but it’s certainly there!
Collage No. 2811 resin panel by Rex Ray
Caledula pigment print by Rex Ray
David Bowie was an early champion of yours as well as a fast friend. Looking at the whole of your career so far, what impact do you think this particular relationship has had on your sense of yourself and your creative confidence?
I could probably write a graduate thesis on this subject. Long before we met, I was a huge Bowie fan when I lived in the repressed suburbs of Colorado in the mid-‘70s. I was fascinated not only by the music, but by his use of personae as a way to create bodies of work. It was about that time when I changed my name and adopted ‘Rex Ray’ as an artistic personae. Bowie’s work showed me how to be a freak and revel in that experience. He made it okay to be gay. It was also by admiring Bowie’s album covers that I began to aspire toward graphic design. I used to buy 45s and then make my own little Xerox picture sleeves for them, cutting and pasting my own photos and incorporating them into the designs. So, imagine my surprise at having the opportunity to work so closely with him some 25 years later! However, once that collaboration began, I thought it would never get as good as this and it certainly wouldn’t last forever, so I began working my way out of graphic design and into fine art.
poster for David Bowie by Rex Ray
Pretty Things design for David Bowie by Rex Ray
From your early graphic design work, you were a skilled proponent of digital design, yet your hand-done collage work in its various forms is what is sending your career into the stratosphere. Was there a shift in temperament in you, or do you take a digital sensibility and speed into this non-digital realm?
Because I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, I always used a lot of hand-done stuff in my graphic design work – woodblock printing, table top staged photographs of hand-made objects, painting and drawing –- and then I’d incorporate that work into the digital realm. So I was always going back and forth between the digital and the handmade. In the current collage work, I’ve taken the aesthetics and principals of computer graphic design with me –- hard edges, flatness, layering, bright solid colors, and the symmetry – I just do it all by hand now.
Penumbra pigment print by Rex Ray
Fingerprint pigment print by Rex Ray
You didn’t realize the potential of your collage work — which began as an act of rebellion with scissors, magazines and glue — until you saw the overall effect of many of them hung together. For anyone just embarking on a creative career, what would you say about this experimentation and the lessons you learned from it?
I can only speak for what worked for me. I started doing the small collages with no intention of showing them. I did them to overcome the internal criticism that prevented me from moving forward. If I thought a particular collage was stupid, juvenile and awful –- it didn’t matter. Not only did it not matter, but I could do several of them and explore just how to make them even more awful. It was a completely liberating experience. Of course, those works eventually went public — and now that I know the work is going ‘out there,’ I’ve become more self-conscious — but I often refer to those old pieces and what I learned doing them.
I was also disciplined like a drill sergeant in doing those small collages. I did them every night, whether I felt like it or not. Some nights would be great and some would be crap, but I was absolutely committed to the process of getting back to some sort of personal creative joy. I also didn’t look at them once they were done. It was all about being in that creative moment. So once they were dry, they’d get put into a drawer and I wouldn’t look at them again… Until I had about a thousand of them — then I looked and looked!!
So, I would recommend discipline, and finding your own voice and visual language. And lots and lots of patience!
Paper collage by Rex Ray
Paper collage by Rex Ray
As you cut the shapes into your collages — with such confidence and ease, it seems! — are you aware of referencing mid-century modernism or organic forms, or are you simply going with what seems pleasing in the moment?
A bit of both. I try to get away from the ‘retro’ thing, but it seems to be constant in the smaller pieces. It’s just the nature of those forms I like so much.
Collage on resin panel by Rex Ray
Collage on resin panel by Rex Ray
For your collages on canvas and on resin board, I understand you use your own papers you’ve painted yourself. Some look to have been spray painted, and some look as if they are faux bois contact paper for kitchen shelves! What inspires these choices, and what kind of contribution do you think they bring to a piece?
That all started when I began making larger works. Prior to that, I was using magazines as my source material. So, there just wasn’t enough magazine paper to do large pieces. There was also an archival issue, in that magazine paper fades and falls apart over time. I also wanted to get away from people finding content in the incidental text incorporated in the work. So I liked the texture and subtle visual information contained in the magazine paper and started painting and block printing my own papers. Larger papers and in quantity! I liked the textures and handmade qualities of my own papers. It’s interesting to me that one of the most common questions I get is ‘What programs and printers do you use to create the papers?’ – when all that is done by hand!
Collage on resin panel by Rex Ray
I adore your exuberant, no-holds-barred use of color! Tell me about the visual tricks you play on yourself to break new ground in color and stretch your own creativity.
One of the best tricks I’ve found is working in bad light! I worked at night under a 40 watt bulb for years! In those circumstances you can’t really see what colors you’re working with. Then, when I would see that work under some proper light, it was amazing the color choices I’d picked! Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it would take for a painting to induce seizures.
Stereoaspicilia collage by Rex Ray
Rationaria collage by Rex Ray
You’re someone who has consistently forged your own path, going after opportunities even when you didn’t know where they would eventually lead — for example, creating your own picture sleeves for those punk music 45s. Do you ever look back on those individual steps and marvel how it’s all come together?
It’s really quite amazing, and sometimes even I can’t believe it. From the black sheep, least likely to succeed in high school – to THIS! In a strange way, I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’ve been doing forever. I did this stuff when I was a kid, and I’m still doing it!
You move so well between so many types of work — collage work on paper, canvas and resin boards, plus digital work and custom projects for various bands and for Apple, Dreamworks, Sony Music, Warner Brothers, and even stationery and rugs. Do you ever fantasize about where else your designs can boldly go? Surfboards maybe?
Now that I have a significant body of work, I get all sorts of licensing offers –- some are great and some aren’t. Funny you should mention it… Just yesterday I received an email from a snowboard/surfboard company.
poster for R.E.M. by Rex Ray
Poster for Beck by Rex Ray
Customized Smart Car by Rex Ray
I know music is a big source of inspiration for you. What else feeds you creatively or makes you happy?
Pretty much the same things that make everyone happy –- friends, going out, fine dining, galleries and museums – that sort of stuff!
Picking just a handful of images to accompany this interview was a daunting task! For a comprehensive overview and superbly written essays on Rex Ray’s work, get his book Rex Ray: Art + Design. To check out his current work available for sale, visit Gallery 16. Rex’s own website is here, and also linked at the top of this interview.
Update: Check out the new Rex Ray wall decals from Blik here!
Here is a video clip of Rex Ray talking about his collage work: