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Reflecting the Subconscious - Ray Caesar in an Exclusive Interview

January 4, 2017
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editorial Manager.

One of the beauties of art is the fact that artists can use it to express something that otherwise they perhaps wouldn’t be able to. Many use its means to examine their own selves, to explore their past and delve into their own minds and souls. This is the case with Ray Caesar, a talented individual who we came to know as the master of digital softwares when it comes to creating mesmerizing portraiture. He is also one of the most prominent members of Lowbrow, also known as Pop Surrealism – although, does he really feel like he belongs to it? His unique aesthetics and an incredible vision of his inner self certainly lean towards what this artistic movement proposed in its prime. Ray Caesar got into art by chance, after he ended up doing an unusual job at a hospital in Canada. It was an event which woke up some deeply hidden secrets, a moment which lit up a creative spark and sent the artist on a brand new path in life. But how exactly did Ray Caesar find his inspiration behind the curious portraits, the intriguing looks, the suggestive poses we see in his work? In an exclusive interview, the British-born, Canada-based artist shared some of his secrets with our readers.

ray caesar dedicated a lot of his pieces to his mother
Left: Ray Caesar – Keepsake / Right: Ray Caesar – Old Wounds. Courtesy Ray Caesar/Gallery House

Ray Caesar Interview – Drawing from One’s Own Past

Widewalls: How did your involvement at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto come to be? Was it something you were always interested in doing?

Ray Caesar: No, it was actually not planned at all. I studied architecture in the 1970s but during a recession, nothing was being built so I took a part time job in the Art and Photography Department of the hospital. I ended up staying there for 17 years. I worked in a department that photographically documented suspected cases of abuse. I had an extremely abusive childhood myself so I suspect staying at the hospital that long had a great deal in facing my own demons and hardship from childhood.

Widewalls: Since the things you saw and experienced at the hospital have had a tremendous impact on your art, would you say your subject matter would have been different, hadn’t you worked there?

RC: I don’t think I would even be making art if it were not for the years spent there. I had to make my own painting and drawings in order to cope with the daily experience I was exposed to. For me, making pictures is the same as writing in a diary. Even as a child I would draw things that disturbed me or caused me pain and found I could dissociate from the mental image or memory, as I knew it was recorded and safe on a piece of paper…in this way my mind seem to let go of the disturbing emotional impact.

Widewalls: In your imagery, we see a variety of elements, from the Victorian and Baroque scenery to technological enhancement for the human body. Where do such ideas come from?

RC: They are all a pastiche of my life, my memories and in many ways, a collage of fragments that have become part of my own mind image of who I am. All my work is a self portrait, not just of my “self” but the elements of my past that make up this one life I know as mine. I grew up in a very old house in an old part of London and my childhood was in some way Victorian, and in other ways quite Baroque. I used to take apart telephones and clocks to see how they worked. I believe a part of our soul is embedded in the things and objects we lived with and loved in the past, and those things are also embedded in our soul.

a lot of these paintings deal with the subconscious
Left: Ray Caesar – Bound / Right: Ray Caesar – Song For The Dearly Departed. Courtesy Ray Caesar/Gallery House

The Creation of Paracosm

Widewalls: Much of your art focuses on female figures, or feminine males. What is rooted in such choice?

RC: As a child I use to play with and talk to dolls, and eventually began to dress up as a girl, which was a very dangerous thing for me to do in the violent angry family in London back during the 1960s.  I used to look at myself in a large mirror in my parents’ bedroom dressed to kill with wigs, garters, dresses and knives ….I was becoming a very dangerous but pretty little person back then with long legs and a fascination with silk and sharp weapons. I remember the mirror was framed in ornate wood, very much like a picture frame, and it soon became a reflection of another part of myself…a fragile part that hat to be protected and a dangerous part that had to be managed. This other self was protected and confined in an evolving world that was forming in my mind. It became what is known as a “Paracosm” where it was a safe place for me to hide and protect the fragile and dangerous parts of who I was. Today, people use terms like “dissociative identity disorder”, “bigender”, or “anima and animus”, but back then it simply became a survival mechanism to cope in an extraordinarily difficult world. My images are simply a reflection of who I am in my subconscious and my soul, and a way to express that part of myself I hid away long ago.

We all have male and female counterpoints and I find feminine aspect of “me” is the more creative and empathic as it is the side of us that brings forth life, nurtures it, and expresses itself with love, care and kindness. Jung called this the anima and animus, and we all need both sides in our psyche to survive. Due to my difficult past with my family I must balance that part of who I am more than others. My strength lies in my empathy and my creative desire in a decidedly feminine fashion that brings forth life and love… and this is the side I am interested in expressing in my “work” and in my “self” and in this “life”. But the strange, weird, dark and dangerous side creeps in and I must accept that as always being part of who I am too.

Widewalls: What are the emotions that the public usually perceives in your work? Does that match with what you want to express?

RC: My work is a mirror to me and myself but that mirror reflects differently based on who looks into it.  For me art doesn’t reflect meaning, but instead reflects feeling. We all know how we feel about a piece of art as it reflects that immediately in an almost instantaneous reaction. That reaction can change as we learn more about the piece and the artist but we usually end up resolved in a particular feeling about that work. I place ingredients in different amounts as I build my images, much like concocting a perfume. We all respond to and wear perfume in different ways as it mixes with our own odor, pheromones and sweat …it always becomes unique if it’s done in a subtle way (if all you smell is the perfume then you have over done it). I place the ingredients of Humor, Danger, Innocence, Erotica, Taboo, Kindness, Surreality, Reality, Joy, Happiness, Beauty, Ugliness, and Melancholy in very subtle ways. My work is very self indulgent and is an expression of me. By the time someone else comes along, they see what they want in it, and I am long gone off to the next piece. If people love it or hate it, or cry or laugh, or just smile or turn away in revulsion, or even dismiss it, then I have done my job. When I look at a piece hanging in the Louvre, I like the idea that I am feeling something that long dead artist brought out in me to feel and that’s a communication over centuries that has worth.

Left: Ray Caesar – Love Letters / Right: Ray Caesar – Siren. Courtesy Ray Caesar/Gallery House

The Subconscious and the Digital

Widewalls: What has the 3D modeling software Maya brought to your practice, creatively speaking?

RC: I spoke earlier of creating a “Paracosm” which is my subconscious playroom where I create. The virtual world is the closest expression of this, as in many ways it’s like another dimension that doesn’t take place in this reality. The virtual world is endless, empty and is ripe for creating, and as individuals we can lose ourselves in it just like a daydream. We are at the cusp of a strange new era in which we are beginning to create another universe in our digital world. I first began using rudimentary 3D modelling software and other digital media in a primitive CAD program back in the 1980s at the Hospital for Sick Children (I remember using it to create an animation of the cryogenic removal of a brain tumor). Using 3D soon became an extension of my painting because in many ways I saw my images as environments or real life expression of myself and not as pictures. Combine that with a childhood obsession with playing with dolls and Maya became the perfect tool for me.

Widewalls: What about the technical side of it? Can you tell us about the process of making an artwork within the digital realm?

RC: In Maya I am still playing with dolls… I can build them and make each part of them move… I set each doll with an internal skeleton that can move fingers, toes, lips and eyes, and therefore I can pose my figures. I can cover them in my skin or my wife’s skin and grow and curl hair. I can bring in lights and cameras and do dynamic animation of cloth that drapes over the figures differently each time I do a simulation. I build rooms, walls, trees, grass and furniture; and I can scan old cloths from dresses my mother wore. I can build all the toys I never had using Polygons and Non-Rational B-splines and I can cover an animal figure in fur that I can clump and comb. It’s really fun! I am still that little boy playing with dolls and dressing up.

Widewalls: Speaking of more traditional media, such as canvas and printing, how different is the challenge to work on a physical two-dimensional space, rather than a digital one in 3D?

RC: I think both present unique challenges and both have unexplored possibilities. The mind is the real creative source. Traditional media and new media are just tools at hand…the media by which we manifest the creativity of the endless possibilities of what our minds can imagine. I think working in 3D is actually more like sculpture or film so I still get a desire to paint and draw.

Left: Ray Caesar – Self Examination / Right: Ray Caesar – The Manager. Courtesy Ray Caesar/Gallery House

The Relationship with Lowbrow / Pop Surrealism

Widewalls: Your artworks are some of the most recognizable and appreciated pieces of the Lowbrow / Pop Surrealist movement. How would you describe your relationship with it? How did it all start for you and what drew you to this particular aesthetics?

RC: I have no memory of being drawn to it as a movement as I couldn’t have changed what I was doing even if I wanted to. I was making similar expressions of what I am currently doing 45 years ago, long before I ever heard of pop surrealism and although my media has changed, my voice hasn’t. If I do think of Lowbrow or Pop-Surrealism I think of it as the first movement that utilized the communicative and expressive aspects of the internet… the work shown on the internet from about 20 years ago defined what Pop Surrealism is today. In that sense all artists working now are presenting that work in a digital medium. Even if it is painted and hangs in a gallery, we all see it online for the most part. I would call this movement “Neo Digitalism” to express a difference of the time before and after the medium of the internet that changed things. It created a platform for a different kind of artist for a completely different kind of audience.

Widewalls: What are your thoughts on the works by other artists from the group? Did any of them influence you, perhaps?

RC: Many years ago I began to see other people making what I would have called “Odd Art” on blogs and websites. I think that definitely gave me the confidence to start showing my work instead of keeping them hidden away in my closet. To actually consider the odd, almost embarrassing ramblings of my own images as something that could actually be put up on the walls of my house, or even out there on the internet! I never actually enjoyed showing my work, I still don’t, but I was definitely influenced by early artists of the Lowbrow Popsurrealism movement that had more confidence to show their work than I did… and I can remember thinking that if people considered what they did as “Art”, then why is my stuff sitting in my closet. I still want to take it off the wall if someone comes over to fix my furnace as that feeling will never change.

Widewalls: What can you tell us about your plans for 2017? Any new projects in sight? Where can we see your work?

RC: I have a great relationship with my manager, Belinda Chun, who runs Gallery House in Toronto. I just make the work and she handles getting that work shown all over the world, communicating with everyone so they don’t have the discomfort of having to deal with me. In some ways, it is a different and unique way of working outside the usual Gallery-Artist model.

I will be having a solo show at Gallery House in Toronto from Jan 28 – Feb 25, 2017. I believe I will be in The London Art Fair in January 2017 with James Freeman Gallery of London. I have a solo exhibition presently at Amsterdam with KochxBos Gallery, and in July 2017 with Damien Roman Gallery in the Hamptons, New York. I think later in 2017 there will be a show in London with Dorothy Circus Gallery. There are probably other projects but I have to ask Belinda as she only tells me stuff in small doses so I don’t get too overwhelmed.

Featured images: Ray Caesar – Homecoming; Day Trip; Desire; Keeping Secrets; Madame R.; The Sporting Life; World Traveler. All images courtesy Ray Caesar/Gallery House.