Inspiration can come from any number of sources, but for Bob Ray and Steve Johnson, the unexpected often provides the most interesting fodder, whether it's a rat caught in a cage or a homeless man in Chinatown. In the Halsey's most recent pair of exhibitions, the artists will reveal the roots of their influence.
Growing up in San Francisco, Johnson was intrigued by nature, but his exposure was limited to the pigeons and seagulls in supermarket parking lots. Later, as a grad student in Arizona, he drove out of the city limits in search of wildlife. "But here in Charleston, all I had to do was set up a birdfeeder in my backyard, and I started seeing lizards, chickadees, rats, and even deer. It's an inspiring environment," he says.
Although he found fresh inspiration when he moved to the Lowcountry to teach drawing at the College of Charleston, the humidity took a serious toll on his work. "I spent the first year trying to find a new process that would work with the humidity," he says. In the dry desert climate, Johnson had used water and gesso on canvas, but when he moved east, the materials never fully dried between working sessions. "The canvas remained moist for weeks. The process of layering gesso and graphite to create depth and texture was impossible, and the materials basically melted into one another. Fans, dehumidifiers, and extra drying time didn't work as well. At one point after working a few weeks on a project, the canvas began to mold. At this point I knew I had to work with materials that were better suited for such a humid environment."
These days, Johnson begins with a drawing on tracing paper, then transfers the image onto thin sheets of wood and cuts it out with an X-Acto knife. The finished carvings are glued onto a canvas of birch wood, giving the work a textural, raised appearance. With its natural swirls left untouched, the viewer can see the various directions of the grain, creating a map-like background for his images.
In "Tightrope," two rats are tied together by their tails. Each has a crew of rats piled on its back pulling in its favor, while several birds seem to command orders from atop the tightened tails. "I want to get these two groups to interact in ways that create more questions than answers," he says. "Rather than try and figure out the world, my scope is widening as I get older." Johnson says using birds and rats as subjects allows him to engage a wider audience, because people can project their own issues onto the oppositional animals.
While Johnson insists his work is playful, some images are darker, like "Hummingbirds and Flowers," which is based on a dream he had about flowers made of people. The faces are human references to basketball players reaching for a ball, the way we're all reaching for something. The image is Dante-like, and faces seem to melt together in a plea to the viewer. "I think the struggle to survive is more compelling than the fruits of success," he says.
Johnson admits to feeling a bit unmoored as a Charleston transplant, and that's evident in his work. "These are questions about my place in the world and how I fit in. I left a lot of urban ugliness behind when I moved here and have been exposed to this green, lush environment where everything moves more slowly, and I see parts of myself that are more optimistic. I'm seeing how the context in which I'm placed effects my frame of mind and is reflected in my work."
Unlike Johnson, multimedia artist Bob Ray isn't particularly inspired by the lush, green environment of his Ocracoke Island, N.C. home. He prefers to work in hotel rooms, traveling to Manhattan several times a year to draw in the old Chelsea Hotel or the Salisbury on 57th Street. Ray's physical context is secondary to his rich, internal world — he describes his images as dark fairy tales or folk nightmares. His 18-foot-long piece "5 Japanese Poets" was inspired by a trip to Chinatown. "It was the summer, and I was in the middle of Chinatown, and there were all these performers, and I saw a destitute looking guy. Looking at him, I noticed that his shoes, belt, and wallet were all made of masking tape," Ray says. "It made an impression on me." At the same time back in North Carolina, his son made a fence out of found wood, and the oddly shaped and uneven pieces fed Ray's inspiration for the board piece. "It's like cooking. You're trying different seasonings to see what works," he says. The final structure is made of slim, linear pieces of wood that have been wrapped in layers of painted masking tape.
Ray's work includes paintings, drawings, collages, and assemblages. Twenty-five drawings inspired by old cartoons and comics and a series of heavily layered collages with text and pieces of paper will be included in the Halsey show. An assemblage piece, "Ball Skin Poem," is made of baseball skins and cores and peanut hulls glued onto a broom. A poem is printed onto the ball skins. Ray, who is not much of a baseball fan himself, says, "I wanted to recreate the way people felt after a ball game when they were young."
The source of an artist's inspiration is often invisible to viewers, and it doesn't matter whether or not we know that Johnson's massive piece started with a homeless man or that the soulful eyes of Johnson's rats were once captive in a backyard trap. What matters is that we feel something when we look at the work and that we want to keep looking.