Michael Ray Charles - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Thursday, July 2, 2020 | Phillips
  • Essay

    Using imagery reminiscent of the advertising of the unidentifiable American past, Michael Ray Charles’s (Forever Free) Icarus, 2003, adapts fictional commercial imagery and stereotypical portrayals of blackness to question the nature of representations of African Americans in the past and today. Charles, who lives and works in Houston, Texas, coopts caricatures and stereotypes of African Americans such as the Sambo, Aunt Jemima, grinning pickaninnies, and Uncle Tom to examine the unrealistic and often-disparaging representations of blackness in American art and advertising.

    (Forever Free) Icarus recreates the ephemera of carnivals and state fairs – in this case an advertisement ostensibly for a shooting gallery attraction – and portrays a belittling picaninny as the eponymous Icarus of the painting. The small black child, who could be read as a cherub if not for preexisting norms of representation, gleefully flies across a target as he weaves around the explosions of nearly missed shots. The center of the target is his heart and the goal of the game is to knock him out of the air, but Icarus remains unscathed, attesting to the durability of the black identity in spite of all. The titular label Forever Free refers to an imaginary product of Charles’s creation that symbolizes the undelivered promises of liberation made to African Americans by America, particularly those advanced using the unrealistic and offensive representations of black people in the consumer market.

    Charles’s work has been simultaneously hailed and criticized for his honest engagement with the history and legacy of offensive imagery. By bringing these images and the issues of representation and identity that surround them to light, however, Charles confronts the viewer with the uncomfortable truths of the past and the inconvenient realities of the present: that the visual history of blackness is marred with diminutive and demeaning representations, and that these offensive and unfair stereotypes endure into the present, contorting contemporary conceptions of what it means to be black in America.

  • Video

    • Provenance

      Cotthem Gallery, Knokke
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


(Forever Free) Icarus

signed and dated "MICHAEL RAY CHARLES 2003" lower right
household paint and copper penny on board
60 x 32 1/4 in. (152.4 x 81.9 cm)
Executed in 2003.

Full Cataloguing

$20,000 - 30,000 

Sold for $67,500

Contact Specialist

Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
New York

1 212 940 1250

20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 2 July 2020