Colorful World of Artist Rex Ray

You could call him a punk rock post-modernist artist. Rex Ray is a visual musician, inviting you into his lyrical world through intricately painted collaged art works. Ray, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been immersed in pop culture since his days as a record clerk at Tower Records. Now his client list is a catalog of today’s industry giants: Apple, DreamWorks, Sony Music and Warner Brothers to name just a few.

His creative eye has given us cover designs and other paraphernalia for such superstars as The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, R.E.M., Bjork, U2, Beck, and David Bowie. Rock and roll is in his blood. Ray skips the narratives as previously seen with other successful contemporary artists, instead concentrating on an arrangement of shapes and colors. The complex imagery is laced with cubist, decorative art, design, and music influences. Each piece is handmade in a crazy beautiful dance between him and his work — the artists describes his style as “the bigger, the better.”

The San Francisco based artist, whose work is currently hanging at Conduit Gallery in Dallas, is moving in new directions, introducing a line of home decor, hospitality and interior design items, stationery and accessories.

A+C writer Rachel van Horn caught up with the busy artist to discuss his current Dallas show and future endeavors.

A+C: I understand you began working at Tower records before becoming a graphic designer. Was the work at Tower records influential on the work you went on to do as a graphic designer?

REX RAY: Yes, I think it was. I loved album covers and I loved music packaging. When I was a kid I always wanted to design album covers.

I understand that during your tenure as a graphic designer, you began this collaging process of placing various shapes together on paper in your spare time, is this how you began your transition into fine art?

I had been a graphic designer for about 10–15 years and the industry had changed throughout the years; everyone was a graphic designer. I had accomplished what I wanted as a graphic designer. If there was a time to get out of the graphic design business, this was the time to do it. I wanted to get back to the silly joy of being creative. The foolish beauty of making something out of nothing, so I started doing these collages every night after I turned off the computer. I had no intention to produce it for the public. It was a creative exercise to get back to the joy of just being creative.

There seems to be this psychedelic quality to your work. Is that intentional?

There are a few things going on here; there are psychedelic references and modern references. I was a sponge for information for about 20 or 30 years. And then there is this ascension quality of the work, before I know what I am doing there is like 40,000 pieces of paper working together. It isn’t something I can control. I will think, ‘let’s make this one simple and elegant,’ and before I know it, there is this complicated imagery. It is just where I go. In art school, I realized the work gets challenging when the work is large so, I try to make the work big. I enjoy the challenge. The first few I did, I would sketch them out. I found it wasn’t as interesting or joyful as diving in. There is this journey between the two of us, the painting wrestling me this way and I wrestling the painting another way.

Do you work on a piece at a time?

Usually, I have one large piece and follow it to completion. Recently, with all the exhibitions I have had, I will have several large pieces going at once. I can see how certain things work on one piece and use that for another piece, it is an engaging and challenging process that I enjoy.

Your work has a fluidity that appears to be rooted in music. How does music influence your work?

I worked in the music industry for a while and at Tower Records for about 10 years. I have never been able to let go of the habit of buying a new record every Tuesday when they were released. I do not play CDs in the studio anymore, only vinyl. For the past 40 years I have acquired about 10,000 vinyl records that I keep in the studio and play them all day long. I listen to 60s, 70s, 80s music along with current contemporary and electronica genre. Basically, I listen to whatever is interesting and different.

Take me through the process of creating one of your fine art pieces.

There are two different processes, differentiated by size. The smaller pieces, like 36 inches square or smaller, I put them on wood panels, paint with acrylic paint, and then collage onto that custom papers that I create. The final step is applying an epoxy resin to the finished work. For the larger works, I begin with canvas which is stretched over a wooden crane, primed, and then I apply acrylic paint. Next, I collage my custom papers on top of the paint and then add a matte medium glaze as a final step. I custom create all of the paper used in my work by using various paint and block printing techniques along with silk screening.

How do you come up with names of your fine art works?

The names are word collages. Generally, a combination of the Latin name of plants and pharmaceuticals.

Your fine art works do hint at your skills as a designer.

Yeah, I began doing this to get away from the graphic design and commercial world. What I realized later is that I brought that work with me. When I first put these paintings out in the world, people often asked what computer program I used. I found that interesting that people were so attached to the graphic work that they thought these were computer made when I thought these were clearly handmade. This new line of products is a bit off the usual path. I have always walked this line of commercial art and fine art. I have this kind of socialist sensibility, where I feel art work should go out to everyone. The collage work I do lends itself to home and office decor. It got to a point people were knocking me off all over the place so I felt it was better I do it now before someone else does it. Now people can experience my work at affordable prices and this has been very important to me. It is really important to me when someone off the street buys a piece of my art. The new business, Rex Ray Studio and R2Lab is only about 18 months old. Right now, it is an experiment. I am exploring which direction I want the work to go.

Then, there is this really interesting conversation that happens like, what happens to the fine art when you start mass producing work, because my galleries would rather me not do that, because art is precious and should not be compromised by mass market and influences. At the same time I see that changing. I think there is this really interesting thing happening between fine art and commercial art where the lines are getting a little blurry.

Where do you see your art business going in the next five years?

I would like to emphasize the painting and fine art. If I had a perfect world, I would just work on large-scale paintings. Those could be challenging sell and this is where Rex Ray Studio and R2Labs come in to meet an economic need for my work. I have hired some great people and will eventually hand that over to them. Right now, because it is new and just beginning, I have to have hands on involvement in the business. Eventually the home and office business will run itself and I will spend most of my time doing the large-scale work I enjoy.