Interview with Ray Caesar
Artist, Ray Caesar’s work is opulent, risqué and erotic. His alluringly, exotic imagery and picture-perfect dreamscapes often take a dark turn in unexpected ways. It is truly awe-inspiring to think that the technology used to create his work was only recently developed, and his parallel universe could not have been realized just a few years ago. How do you label your female subjects?
Well, they are not always female, but have a definite feminine quality to them, just as we all have male and female counterpoints within us. I see them as a part of my own subconscious memory of all the gentle and fragile things I hid away as a child. There is definitely a mutant quality to them, as deformity was also a part of my memory at childhood, as my father had severely deformed feet. I remember thinking that people may not be as you think of them under their clothing, and may also not be as you think of them in their mind.
What defines beauty for you?
I don't really think of male or female beauty in terms of physical appearance. I had a very difficult childhood which was overburdened by the ugliness and cruelty in the human mind, and my work is just a visual representation of what I hid in a sanctuary for safekeeping as a child. I sense the beauty inside people rather than their outer appearance, and I portray that inner beauty in a very representational way in my work because my work is a depiction of my subconscious... my thoughts, feelings and emotions. For me, beauty is defined by love, kindness and empathy... and I see these as feminine qualities and strengths, as they are important for nurturing children. As a male, I find these feminine qualities to be a source of strength within myself and others.
How do you go about deciding on the settings and time periods for your works?
I feel them... and I feel them deep within the nature of who I am. The past is an important part of my own life and the past is an equally important part of my life as an artist. As a person, I build on the foundation of my own past, and as an artist, I build on the foundation of the art that has come before me. I see my own creativity like a building that continues to build additions on what has already been built in the past. I also have a timeless quality about my own spiritual nature that helps me mix the past, present and future into a single sense of here and now... a place both familiar and unfamiliar. This is how I think of the environments I build, and in many ways, they are also representative of the sanctuary I created as a child to hide all the gentle qualities about myself... all I am doing now is making a window into that world that I made back in childhood- A kind of window from my heart to yours.
Why are men only portrayed in a subservient context in your work?
Since my work is built in a 3D environment, my figures are anatomically correct. They are not all female under their clothing of pretty dresses and they are not always entirely male or female as they may have a hermaphroditic quality in them too. I try to balance the masculine and feminine that is ever-present in us all. I was a very gentle and empathetic child brought up in a very sadistic male environment that was, in many ways, quite brutal. This male environment was a breeding ground for fear, hate and intolerance... and also a very particular kind of insanity. We can look around the world today and we can see the work of men utilizing the same forms of power fueled by fear, hate, intolerance, and complete lack of empathy to the pain of others. I see certain (but not all) male qualities as immature and without growth... and by this, I remind you that I see male and female qualities in each and every individual, whether they be male or female. In today's world, we see a father caring for his child, but he is utilizing a feminine aspect of himself, even if he bridles at the thought of it. My work... or my children, are really archetypes of what I call the "divine child". My work is a reminder to me of spiritual growth. When I was very young, and also during the 17 years I worked at the Hospital for Sick Children, I made a sanctuary for that more feminine quality within myself... a place where man and nature hold no power, and the innocent are allowed to hunt back those things taken from them. I make a place where they are in power; where man and nature had best beware. In brief, I see the male qualities in myself to be subservient to my female qualities... as the love, kindness and empathy used for raising and caring for children, is also used, in my capacity, to create as an artist. I see my ability to create as a strong, powerful, feminine quality and immersing creativity with empathy seems to solve my problems as an artist and as a human being.
It's here that I should mention the 17 years I worked in a children's hospital. During that time, I worked in a photographic department that was required to document child abuse. I came across overwhelming situations of absolute neglect and cruelty that made me confront my own childhood. It was a job that, on occasion, made you just retreat into your office to cry, or go out into a back lot and get angry at the world. Many people in these jobs appear to develop an armor to such things, but I think that is just an illusion... time has a way of catching up as life slows down in years. Art and the simple act of making pictures was, for me, a coping method... it has been my whole life. Just as a person puts their private thoughts in a diary to cope with the world, I drew pictures as a way to lessen the burden of difficult situations that life threw at me. My work is really like a private diary, and I kept my work very private for many years. There comes a time though, when one has to take all those difficult memories and find a way of letting others deal with them. So I placed my work on gallery walls, and in some ways, these things are no longer my problems anymore. They become everyone else's problem and I am free and unburdened to leave and find another place to make another picture.
What is your usual brainstorming routine?
I work intuitively- I sit in a crowded Starbucks and feel all that caffeine-induced energy around me. My hand starts to move on paper and works much faster than my mind can think. There are conversations all around me, and people moving and rushing with energy. I just sit like a little sweet vampire and let all that energy flow through me, like a bat feeding on blood. Before I know it, there is something called "flow" and all manner of ideas and improbable acts of creative energy appear on the page of my little sketchbook. I never reason ... I never think through problems on the page in a logical manner, as that just seems to stop the intuitive process. I have inner voices... and this is also the source of those voices I hear within my own mind. At times, I think of some of these voices as mine, and other times, I think of them as something other than me. I don't worry about the logic of these voices or the reality of them... I just listen to the kind ones, and rather than sit at the table of belief or disbelief, I sit at the table of wonder.
What was the most impactful art museum experience you have had?
That’s a funny question, as I have had panic and anxiety attacks for years and I almost always get these attacks in art museums. I go to therapy for this, as it's a complete mystery to me, and no one would know I am having a panic attack, as I am quite used to them by now...in fact, I am quite calm when they happen :-) and feel they have benefited me more than burdened me. I love art so much... all art... every kind of art… so it's a mystery to me why I have such anxiety in such places of absolute beauty. I also "feel" very much in such places and I could swear I hear or feel a kind of communication from all those dead artists. Seeing the windows into each and every heart and soul of those long dead voices is actually quite overwhelming for me. I just came back from Italy and I had such a hard time walking amongst all the Bernini sculptures, amazing Caravaggios and Michelangelos... but, I loved it so much, even with all the anxiety. A severe panic attack can make you think you are dying, and it's not lost on me that in a place such as the Borghese Gallery or the Uffizi Gallery, that I am actually walking among the dead... that museums of the past are like walking in a graveyard, so it's a bit unsettling when you hear voices in such places.
When did you first feel you had honed your distinctive artistic style?
In all and complete honesty, I never felt what I work on has a "style". I am not sure what to call it, but it's more deeply rooted than a style, as I felt it even as I drew as a child. A style means something that you can change, like a fashion, but I can't change what I do! It can evolve and change of its own will but that will isn't mine to change as I please. It would be like trying to change the pitch and tone of your voice... eventually, your old voice would creep back in. I think everyone has a built-in "style" that is encoded in their DNA in some way. It won't matter what type of creativity or medium you use, whether you work abstractly or conceptually, or in a representative or surrealistic way, It won't matter if you work in oil or stone or on a computer. Some deep, embedded fragment of who you are will seep through your work and it just takes time to recognize what has always been inside you. Michelangelo spoke of the sculpture within the stone- It's also true of the artistic voice within the person, and within every person there is an artist. That's what I mean when I say that my work is a communication of my subconscious to my conscious mind, or the very fabric of who I am to who I think I am.
Have the films of Stanley Kubrick had any influence on your work?
I do very much love Stanly Kubrick. I have a friend named Ron who is quite an authority on the man. I love the layers in Kubrick's work and how you think you know what's going on, but there is always another layer beneath. I also love the duality in his work and how he shows the non-black and white in that duality. I think much of what I was trying to explain earlier in male and female counterpoints is so beautifully represented in Kubrick's work. I love all film directors though... all art... I love any form of creative energy, whether it's good or bad. In the end, it's all energy to be used and created and recreated, like a child sitting in a room working with plasticine. That's what I do all day long.
Your insights into the blurring of male and female identities reminds me a lot of the film "Orlando" starring actress, Tilda Swinton. Have you seen that film?
Strange that you should mention “Orlando”... I remember seeing the film at the Toronto Film Festival many, many years ago. Tilda Swinton was there and it was the only time in my life I became an utter Fan-boy... I had to rush up and try and get to her and shake her hand, and I never do that... I couldn't even get close, but I never remember feeling such a close identification with a character in film before. I have always felt that the male and female identity is very much an illusion, and that I am just me... we all just have our specific preferences in all things, but I have a sixth sense, that in the possibility of another time and place, all this gender identification means very little indeed. I have had so many dreams and lucid dreams of past lives... as both genders. I have no specific beliefs in the reality of those dreams, but an inner voice always tells me that belief or disbelief doesn't matter... it’s the ability to wonder at all the possibilities and probabilities this wonderful universe has in store for us.
Can you discuss some of the unique fetish themes featured in your work?
I use ingredients, like I am making a perfume. I put in a little pain, a little love, a little joy, some melancholy, something foul and somewhat creepy. I place a smidgen of happiness, a touch of sexuality and fetish, and would even go so far as to put a soupçon of taboo. All these things are in the kitchen, like little bottles, for me to experiment with. Each time I make up a little bottle of odor, it has various ingredients that I feel people find in themselves. If you are a humorous person, you will respond to my smidgen of humor; if you have a sadness, you will feel my sadness; if you "enjoy" or "respond to" or are “turned off to" a particular fetish, well then that might be the first thing you see! We all have it, we all respond to it in certain doses and amounts, and in different ways. What I love is examining the ingredients of fetish itself- What comprises all the ingredients of the various fetish qualities, as well as the study of it… that is interesting. We all do and do not respond to the same things. We all know about joy, happiness and fear, but once we get into the realm of the more subconscious feelings, then there will always be a place in my work for these mysteries. As an example, I don't use these things as a simple form of titillation... some of these aspects have a very difficult emotional impact on me as a person. I often felt my parents had a very strange, sadomasochistic relationship that resulted in very visible and open acts of sadistic brutality and humiliation. By dealing with some aspects of this in my work, I can work through confusion and pain from the past. I can't put too much of this in though, as it overwhelms the work and just like in my own mind, I have to find ways of balance by dealing with making such aspects of human life obvious, but not overwhelming. Art is not just a beautiful thing, but it can use beauty as a form to convey a deeper set of feelings and emotions. I use Art as an armature for survival of my past... it helps me cope.
What inspires the clothing fashion in your work?
Fashion and Art have always had a co-existence, like a binary star system. They revolve around each other in a gravitational dance that is in some ways at the forefront of human creativity as much (if not more) as science and engineering. Art and Fashion change the ways we think of ourselves and change the ways we feel about ourselves. I love looking at contemporary fashion designers, as much as I love the fashion of the past. Recently, I have been fond of creating hats and head dresses. To see amazing designers of millinery, like Stephen Jones, who I admire very much, or Elsa Schiaparelli or Jacques Fath, fuels a particular kind of thinking when I combine that with a Rembrandt, Franz Hal or Van Dyck. Some forms of fashion, like the bat and cat masks I utilize, are a metaphor for a somewhat sexual and dualistic element of what is beneath something. I remember being a kid and reading Batman comics... sometimes he was almost unmasked which I found to have, what I could only describe as, a sexual power portrayed in a mask within a picture. Later, I used and manipulated this concept into, not just what lies beneath our clothing, but what lies beneath our mind, as in some ways the two have a strange and mysterious connection.
Have any fashion designers asked to recreate costumes inspired by your work?
In the past, a few designers have recreated some aspects of my work. It's been interesting, and sometimes pleasant and sometimes not. Certainly, there has been a great interest in what I do from many fashion designers, and many contacts and exchanges of ideas are even now underway. It's a little more difficult, as my work is not photography, and some of the things I make might be difficult to recreate in the real world. There is always the possibility of combining the virtual digital world of my work with the real world of photography or film. I have a photographic background that I could build on, I suppose, and possibly incorporate that aspect into my work. Right now, I just keep doing what I love, and that is working in the virtual world and seeing where that takes me.
What is the story behind the three women with spider-legs peaking out from beneath their dresses in “La Chasse,” translated to “The Hunt”?
It's less important what it means and what it's about, than how it makes you feel. But for me, the work is about hunting back that light... or that innocence that was taken from them. It also has elements of the source of creativity being hunted back by the muse because their gift may not have been used well. It's about the fragility of things in us as children and how that light can be abused and misused. It certainly is a window into that world I speak about that is a sanctuary for anyone that has had something taken from them… a place where we can hunt back the light of our soul and a place where man and nature had best beware.
Ray Caesar currently has a solo exhibition entitled "The Trouble with Angels" at Dorothy Circus Gallery until April 6th. Below is a list of his upcoming exhibitions for this year:
March 22 - July 05, 2014 Future Perfect - (agnès b.’s LIBRAIRIE GALERIE), Hong-Kong
April 3 - 6, 2014 Affordable Art Fair – New York, with Richard Goodall Gallery
April 16, 2014 CHG Circa Gallery, Culver City, California
June 2 - 9, 2014 Art Fair KunstRai with Kochxbos Gallery, Amsterdam Netherlands
July 10 – July 13, 2014 artMRKT, East Hamptons, New York, with Vered Gallery
July 11 – Aug 4, 2014 Group Show "Art on the Edge-Annual Show", Vered Gallery East Hamptons, New York