Michael Ray Charles’ '(Forever Free)' sculpture a powerful critique at UT


Just as students returned to the University of Texas campus this semester, school officials acted on their decision to remove a long-controversial bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, that had stood on UT’s Main Mall since 1933.

The statue’s removal came after pressure intensified over the summer and attracted considerable press and public attention.

While the debate over the Davis sculpture raged, elsewhere on campus at the newly expanded Gordon-White Building, a radically inclusive sculpture took up permanent installation.

An exuberant cloud of several hundred wooden crutches, Michael Ray Charles’ “(Forever Free) Ideas, Languages and Conversations” will receive its official dedication Thursday.

The site-specific installation by the former UT professor and nationally recognized artist is the latest aesthetic contribution to the campus by Landmarks, the university’s public art program that is funded through a percentage of campus capital improvement funds.

Situated just to the north of the UT Tower, the Gordon-White Building is home to academic entities focused on the study of historically marginalized cultures, including the African and African Diaspora Studies Department, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies.

The 1952 Mediterranean-style building recently underwent an expansion, and “(Forever Free)” floats above the atrium, where the older exterior and its architectural formalities were preserved and conjoined with the open, contemporary design of the new wing.

Though it at first reads as a frenzied airborne cluster of wooden crutches, “(Forever Free)” is exquisitely composed.

Hanging from steel cables, it’s an arching cloud of connected, star-shaped wheels, each formed by eight crutches. There are 26 wheels — one for each letter of the alphabet — and they bear particular import for the artist.

“What the scholars in that building do is produce knowledge using language as a tool. They master the use of language and texts,” says Charles, who taught art at UT for 21 years before taking a job at the University of Houston.

“But language is abstract, symbolic — and language is confusing as well.”

There is still much miscommunication, Charles says, between the past and the present. And progress intellectually, politically or socially will reveal existing wounds that each generation must grapple with.

Compiling wooden crutches into wheels poised to move is Charles’ nod to those African-American scholars who have done the best with whatever a university establishment has handed them.

“This was a huge effort for UT to invest in making black studies into an academic department, and I applaud that,” says Charles, who was a faculty representative of the department when it was still an interdisciplinary center.

“And since its beginning in the 1960s, the field of black studies across the country has been a bit of a wounded entity within the academic structure,” he say. “But despite the (recent) investment, it’s not enough of a space or a presence.”

A Louisiana native born in 1967, Charles first studied illustration and advertising design before switching to painting, his usual artistic medium. After completing his master’s degree at the University of Houston, he arrived in Austin. Now, his paintings are collected by museums nationwide

But his early acuity to the commercial use of signs and symbols has always been a crucial component to Charles’ often provocative paintings, which appear as if they are vintage posters or print ads. His bluntly satirical use of stereotypical figures such as Aunt Jemima and Sambo doesn’t always sit well with some, though Charles is critically applauded for directly confronting the legacy of historic racial stereotypes.

For years, he’s created his “Forever Free” series of paintings depicting vague commercial products that played on black stereotypes in mass media and also a broad metaphor for the empty promise to African-Americans of freedom and equality.

And if the new “Forever Free” installation may be a departure from Charles’ usual graphically direct paintings, everything about the suspended sculpture of crutches dovetails with the trajectory of his previous challenging work, he says.

“This is a cultural critique.”



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