For the last 55 years, Los Angeles-based artist Joe Ray has explored both “inner and outer space”. Born in Louisiana in 1944, Joe Ray grew up in Alexandria, and studied fine art at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in 1962, where he was one of few black students in a previously segregated college. Ray arrived in Los Angeles, in 1963, at the age of 20; in 1965 he was inducted into the US Army and sent to Viet Nam, two weeks after the Watts Riots. Upon his return, Ray moved to Leimert Park, and committed himself to his art making. He first showed his artwork in the 1969 4th Annual Watts Summer Festival Art Exhibition.
“Being an artist was not the easiest thing to think about as a profession …But after [Viet Nam], it was easy to make a decision to become an artist, because of the position I was put in: I could not have made it…I could have not come back. So if you put your life on the line for that, you can put your life on the line for something you feel some passion for.”
Ray is a unique voice in the L.A. art community, a man who coexisted in many communities, from Light and Space, to Ferus. Throughout the 1970s he was a founding member of Studio Z, the influential artist’s collective with David Hammons, Senga Negundi, and Houston Conwill. This alchemy of associations and interests fed an artistic practice that was promiscuous in its material pursuits and always in dialogue with the cutting edge of artmaking in Los Angeles.
Ray met artists Larry Bell, Doug Edge, and Terry O’Shea, and began exploring sculpture through plastics. In the mid-1960s, partially through the interdisciplinary work of artist DeWain Valentine (and chemical engineer Ed Revay), there was a revolution in the use of plastics and cast resin throughout Southern California. Ray reveled in the alchemical oddity of the material and exploited resin’s paradoxical nature as a hard substance that can both radiate and be permeated by light.
His first sculptures were translucent and related to his interest in euphoric perception, of endless depth. He added pigments, often employing black and white values, such as in New Eye (1969), an important early cast resin work that is rooted in the California Light and Space movement. After he received the “Young Talent Award” from LACMA in 1970, Ray enrolled in the first class at CalArts, under the mentorship of Nam June Paik and John Baldessari, and took his BFA in 1973. When the Museum of Contemporary Art was founded, Joe Ray was one of 15 members of the original Artists Advisory Council (1978-1980).
His work has never been confined to a specific medium or style and has shifted between representation and abstraction, sculpture, painting, and photographs. Ray is known for his “Nebula Paintings” - a series of intergalactic landscape paintings that began in the late 1970s. Using acrylics and aerosol paint, these skycaps continue his exploration of outer fields of vision with an affinity for early 20th Century Impressionism.
His assemblage-painting, "US," 1993, is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it is installed as part of the Modern Art permanent collection. His work was included in Made In California: Art, Image and Identity (1900 - 2000), LACMA; and was notably included in L.A. Object & David Hammons Body Prints (2007) at Tilton Gallery (NY) and Roberts & Tilton (LA). Joe Ray received a 50-year survey, Complexion Constellation, at Diane Rosenstein Gallery in 2017. He lives and works in Los Angeles.