Known for his digital dreamscapes featuring woman-child figures set in elaborate Rococo style interiors, Ray Caesar creates elegant yet haunting works that are a reflection of his continuous path to self-discovery. At first glance these characters may appear pretty or even delicate, but further examination reveals disfiguring elements that challenge both the viewer’s perception and their interpretation.
In anticipation of Ray’s upcoming show at Corey Helford, Hi-Fructose talks to the artist about the inspiration behind his latest works, the artists who inspire him and what he plans to do with all those digital files stored in his computer. – Stephanie Chefas
The title of your upcoming show, A Dangerous Inclination suggests that a more personal exploration is at play. What’s the inspiration behind your latest exhibit?
I always feel my work is a personal exploration but the last few years I have undergone an intense period of psychotherapy and being someone that has Disassociative Identity Disorder DID (which is a form of multiple personalities) It’s been a bit of an intense time. On the positive side it’s also a time of clarity and pieces of a complex puzzle fitting into place. For many years I operated in a kind of fog knowing something was possibly wrong but not able to quite grasp what that was. Parts of me could cope and manage in certain situations and other parts managed other situations. For me it’s been like slowly waking up after years of sleeping that began after I started showing my work about 10 years ago. A dangerous inclination is about the difficulties of being able to manage disparate parts of one’s own personality and the dangerous inclination to let one part rule over the others.
Self-Examination features a female figure elegantly dressed and wearing glasses while giving herself what could be described as a medical examination. Are we viewing a self-portrait here?
All my work is a form of self portrait or “self examination” or at least a look into what I see in my own mind and the voices and places that have been with me for many years. Psychotherapy is a very powerful and as you touch behind the subconscious layers of your mind you might be very surprised at what you find beneath those layers of who you think you are and who might live with you down there. I had a very difficult childhood and a series of traumas during that time developed a coping mechanism of disassociating aspects of my personality into fragments. It worked very well for a child as a coping mechanism but has its obvious problems as an adult. I go into what is called fugue states …periods of intense daydreaming or distorted time where another aspect of my personality becomes prominent and this can be triggered by something very simple …but to me it’s like reliving a trauma. I keep a certain humor about it and art helps and so does therapy and both are a form of “self examination” a way of feeling what might be beneath the layers of the self.
Death of an Unfaithful Still Life is a unique piece as it doesn’t depict any figures, but rather a single dresser unable to stand on its spiny legs lying broken on the floor with contents of the drawers spilling out. Can you talk about this? Is this a new direction in your work?
I have always drawn nonfigurative work but just haven’t had the time to explore that direction as much as I would like over the last several years and often it’s given me some problems and been a bit “unfaithful”. As a child I used to talk to furniture and I am sincerely convinced the furniture used to talk back…let’s just say I spent a lot of time alone and one hears friendly voices from time to time and who knows from where they come and why they know what’s going to happen in the future. Sometimes it can seem the furniture is alive and some humans are the still life’s with no care or feeling in them. To this day I can still touch furniture in an antique store and feel something like music embedded in the soul of the wood. I have many plans for nonfigurative work …although to me they are still “figurative”.
Your work is heavily inspired by artists of the Rococo era as well as Dali’s surrealist symbolism (clocks, dresser drawers and ants). What other artists from the past move you, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
It seems to me that this time has similarities to the days prior to the French Revolution and you only have to look on the news and see the angry crowds outside the Bastille ready to storm. Will heads begin to roll off the guillotines again…that might be fun!!!. What I love about that period is the sense of innocence before the revolution hit. The way a small group seemed to live a charmed life while millions starved and globally… I can’t help but see the parallels. I often wonder if we are all Marie Antoinette’s living happily in our Petit Trianon’s inside the gates of Versailles with our tea cakes and silk cushions and a blind eye to what’s happening outside our pretty little world. It’s also connected to the way I can go off in my head to other places …I create a little Versailles in my mind …a sanctuary I created as a child to protect parts of who I am and in a way I cut up parts of myself just like that shiny pretty guillotine.
Dali was the father of the subconscious and he was also the first artist I ever experienced. I expect the little tiny book I had as a child had a tremendous influence on me not just because it was art but because it reminded me of a landscape of the mind …a place I was increasingly taking refuge in. I can still remember opening the pages …placing a part of me inside that wonderful world and quietly closing the cover as another part stayed to endure the sins of this world.
I love the quiet and gentle work of Antoine Watteau and his fete gallant. Watteau was a very sickly man and you can see in his work the melancholy of a soul not long for the world ..I think his work is filled with gentleness and hope and wanting. It was work he obviously did for himself … no great portraits of the kings and queens of the day but just little garden parties in the evening of life.
In truth I love all art, I love the art I love and the art I hate…I love the inner knowledge that all creative effort has merit. It’s not what people do and how good it is …for me it’s that mystery of why they love to do it. Why does someone want to knit booties for a baby? Why do they want to put a ship in a bottle? Why do they want to make a treasure for no one but the pleasure of sitting in the sun and making what they want to see ?…that truly inspires me and its one of the things I love about human beings.
You started creating art from a very young age; building dioramas and making strange constructions out of found materials around the house. Was anyone else in your family an artist (or have creative tendencies) and did they nurture your talent?
I am honestly not sure how to describe my family …let’s just say it was a strange time and a strange experience . I can’t really say it was a place that nurtured talent but sometimes it’s just that kind of non-nurturing environment that does. There was definitely creative tendencies and some unusual talents in all my family members, and living in South London in the 1960s was a place that was certainly inspirational. I can remember my brother and I building vast constructions out of all the old rusting junk in our backyard and setting fire to a stuffed effigy of my father in his old clothes on Guy Fawkes night. My oldest sister seemed to manage dating three of four boyfriends at the same time without any of them the wiser and that I can assure you was pure talent and work of art. My mother used to make candles through the night and almost burnt down an 18 story apartment building when the pot of melting wax caught fire while she nodded off..I remember walking calmly down the hallway thick with black smoke and the entire ceiling in flames to wake her up…..it was kind of pretty. There were several incidents involving fire and creative tendencies as I remember. A rusting hatchback car burning in the parking lot of a mall where my mother had tossed her lit cigarette into the trash before shopping… the fire dept smashing through the sun roof window to dowse it with pretty white pinky foam while I watched eating a bag of chips and my Father sat holding his head in his hands and screaming. That burnt out car stood on our front lawn for almost 7 years like a kind of burnt rusted Jasper Johns sculpture …weeds and mold grew inside and little animals lived in it…I think that nurtured a bit of creativity.
Though you worked in creative fields for the majority of your adult life, the idea of pursuing an art career didn’t come about until mid to late 40s. Was there a specific event or series of events that made you realize you wanted to become an artist?
I have always made art but I had a problem with showing it, and still do. I kept it tucked away for most of my life as it was a private thing, like writing in a diary. I am equally uncomfortable with the term “Artist” as it’s not the first word that I would come up with to describe how I feel about my work. I make pictures and I use those pictures as a form of communication from my subconscious to my conscious mind. It’s my vocabulary of images that allow me to express emotion and memory and even provides a forum of that rational discussion that goes on in our heads. For me that rational discussion is divided into separate personalities I call Castor and Pollux and I hear them as voices! as that’s the way my disassociative disorder works. I began to show my work after the death of my Mother and Sister and a series of lucid dreams and episodes of sleep paralysis in which my mother appeared and showed me galleries of work. I have had such things all my life and therapy explains it one way and a part of me explains it in a more spiritual way …. I have a voice that says both explanations are right and another part of me that seems to operate without the need of explanations and I think that’s the part that makes art.
By choosing to work in a digital medium, one could say that you’re a little ahead of your time or even a pioneer in the gallery scene. What about this particular medium attracts you over traditional paints or graphite?
Ha! I have always thought of myself as behind the times and very old fashioned to the point of being born in the wrong century. I suspect when I began to make imagery on the computer I had no worries or concerns over whether it would be taken seriously or not. I just wanted to make what I saw in my head and the computer was a tool I had been using for many years to make pictures. Working in a three dimensional virtual environment is very much like being a child in a toyroom and enacting out stories and dramas with dolls and building blocks. I do like the fact that some elements are there but unseen …like a letter or locket in a closed drawer. As much as I use a computer the final result is still various forms of pigment on a surface …a way of making marks to create an image that evokes an emotion or cognitive response. It’s not that I like using computers but that I like to make marks on a surface just like the first humans that rubbed a burnt stick of charcoal on a cave wall. Some artists like the tactile feel of their hand on the surface …I like the tactile feel of my mind on the surface and working in a virtual digital environment feels more connected to what’s inside my head as I am practiced at losing myself in other worlds…both subconscious and digital.
What are the future plans for the countless digital files on your computer?
I didn’t have much plans for them. I have lost so many files over the years that many of them now only exist in my own memory or on dusty abandoned computers left in the basement of a house I have also abandoned…it’s too haunted to sell. I imagine in the future there will be archeologists that will specialize in data retrieval from the beginning of the computer age. There will probably be a museum of historic data someplace that will have all of our personal emails, questionable pictures, blogs, facebook pages and tweetings. I imagine it will cost a lot to get in and people will complain in the lineup, there will be a very nice cafeteria and like many of the museums in the planetary system …it will be closed on Mondays.
From reading past interviews, your wife of 30 + years sounds like the grounded voice of reason in an otherwise surreal world. How has she influenced your artwork? Would you say that she’s the ‘rock’ in your personal and professional life?
I would agree with that very much. We met when I was 15 and she was 17 back in 1974 and she knows me much much better than I know myself. Being Japanese she is very methodical and rational and also the most positive person I have ever known. She is able to recognize instantly that I have gone off into a disassociated fugue …and she is able to snap me out of it and bring me back to the here and now almost instantly. Her clarity of mind balances very well with my constant confusion. She just retired early at 55 after working 33 years in Oncology in one of the largest Cancer institute’s in the world. She has a strong spiritual aspect to her and balances the world of science and spirituality better than anyone I have ever known. She loves dogs and has that kind of laughter that is infectious … I have never known anyone more good natured and grounded. Imagine a little tiny Scientific Dalai Lama that is only 4 foot 11 inches tall ..looks like she is 12 and suspiciously like Minnie Mouse …when kids see her they immediately point and smile and for some strange reason squirrels come right up to her and with their tiny little paws they take little crumbs straight out of her hand. There is a lot of Michiko ( Jane! …she has two names just like I have multiple personalities ..works well ) in my work and if you see her quietly standing in a corner of the gallery at an opening of one of my shows, you will see what I mean.
I love her very much.
If I were to spend the day with Ray, what could I expect?
A lot of dog walking and greetings by neighborhood dogs that know me well. We would sip Starbucks in strange old libraries in the university I live next to. I like to explore old buildings and find places to sit and sketch that have a certain “energy” like old churches and lecture halls dental waiting rooms. I go to the Royal Ontario Museum and The Art Gallery of Ontario several times week. The AGO security know me well and have had several problems with me over the years as male authority figures fancy uniforms usually bring out a nasty side to me …there is a bit of a look on their faces like ..Uh oh ..its him again. I usually take a bento box lunch with me and find very odd places to sit and eat my lunch like little downtown Graveyards or beautiful sunlit lobbies of bank towers. I have been stopped and questioned by police for photographing manhole covers and grills outside financial institutions and I love the look on their faces when I explain what I am doing and show them little pretty cards of my pictures and why a 100 year old manhole cover is art. I often try to sneak my dog into malls and argue with security that Bonnie is quite behaved and more hygienic than a lot of other people walking in the mall. I get funny looks when I examine ladies undergarments in Wal-Mart and even stranger looks when I ask how much it would be just to photograph the texture of a particular girdle…I have taken to just taking the garments into the changing room and getting photo textures there. I like to walk in front of people who are walking and texting on the sidewalk with their iphone and then I suddenly stop and bend over to tie my shoelace….then when they are picking themselves up of the floor I say “Sorry …where you in my way”. I have really been trying to improve but it takes time and therapy. I am very polite otherwise and take my hat off when indoors and offer my seat to little old ladies on the bus even if they don’t want it. I am very much like my pictures ..part gentle angel …part mischievous demon……..and you never know who is going to come out and play.
All images courtesy of Gallery House / Ray Caesar