Known for his politically charged pieces, visual artist Ray Noland says things through his images that words never could. For most, projects like “Run, Blago, Run” and “GoTellMama!” could imply certain bureaucratic angles, but at its core is an honest snapshot of history, a contextual reference point for what is unquestionably a turbulent time for American politics. In one moment his work strikes like a lightning bolt to the funny bone, and in others it’s a satirical truth—like a funhouse mirror distorting reality and mystifying what was once so familiar. It’s an overall reminder that fiction can often times be the easiest path to reality. The middle ground between these thoughts offer a glimpse into how Ray perhaps sees the world around him—both politically and socially. Centerstage caught up with him a few months back to talk about these qualities and how they can be a catalyst for change.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and how you first became interested in art?
I was born on the south-side of Chicago and was raised in Huntsville, AL. I had a talent for drawing from an early age but didn't give it much thought until I was kicked out of marching band in 8th grade and had to choose another elective—art.
What about your process? When you’re ready to work do you usually have a clear vision in mind or is it a series of trial and errors?
I freely go both ways depending on the project. At times it's fun to not know what you’re going to do—to just start moving shapes around... adding and subtracting. Sometimes it's quite amazing what you can come up with out of thin air. I love that magic. At other times I see images in my head and want to actualize a specific concept. That's also satisfying because you see your idea go from abstract thought to tangible object before your eyes. It's not about either/or but rather both/and.
Art and politics seem to converge just as naturally as day does into night, and we’re at a point now where we are experiencing unprecedented changes in our political landscape. How do you see yourself responding to these seismic shifts?
Words and imagery can move masses and greatly transform peoples' thinking—whether they're being used to sell shoes or governments. I like to think of myself as a catalyst.
You’ve spent a lot of time working your way across America, where does Chicago’s art scene stand in terms of influence and potential?
There is an overflow of talent in Chicago. The Midwest is where people hone their craft. The problem is there isn't enough good, substantial, creative projects and work around to keep them all fed. Sooner or later they have to leave or secure work outside of Chicago. It's a standard, general market here. There's a bit of a dogfight aspect to it in regards to choice work. The folks that stand out in Chicago work at a different pace—more of an international level of output. The Midwest pace is a bit sluggish.
Your work is a reference to history. How important is that responsibility to you? Is it something that sways the direction of your work and the decisions you make?
My work is simply about documenting and interpreting what it is to live at this moment in time. In many ways, this work does not have real value today. It will make much more sense in years to come.
In addition to politics, music seems to play an important role in both your creative process and content. Who are some musicians out there now that provide some substantial creative fodder?
Music helps me get to that place where I stop thinking and just do. Music helps me understand life. I look at a great piece of art in the same way I hear a great song. If done well they both tap into a human truth.
The “Hip-Hop State of Mind” print says quite a bit. Where do you think the state of hip-hop is going now, at its current rate?
I don't think I'm the best person to talk about the current state of hip-hop. What I was really trying to get at with that piece was confronting the question of where the violence comes from. Is it inspired by or a product of the environment? I think many of the issues in our country are man-made. Many politicians think by simply hiring more police they make neighborhoods safer. That implies that crime is intrinsic. I would argue people commit crime because they are forced to gamble between eating and being caught. I believe if people had real resources they would not commit crimes. But what do I know... I'm just an ‘artist’.
Any other projects we can look forward to in the coming months?
I'm getting tired of making art objects. Especially in an ever smaller art buying market. 2D art just doesn’t satisfy me or utilize my skills to the fullest. Since 1982 arts patronage has declined every consecutive year. People aren’t buying homes or wallpaper. Where are they going to put art? I, as many other artists have entire galleries of work sitting in their studio. Overall, I'm not planning on exhibiting much this year. In May, I'll have a new piece in the upcoming Chicago Street Art Show—much different than anything you've seen from me. I'm moving more towards writing and directing—telling stories with moving pictures that really get into peoples' heads and tap into those nuances in our culture. This summer I'll be launching a full-length feature documentary project. Please follow me on twitter @Mr_CRO to keep track of up-coming news.