Interview with Ray Caesar
A digital and visionary poet
Those who like to explore enchanted places or travel through the sovereign kingdoms of fantasy, cannot be lacking to visit the Dorothy Circus Gallery, a delicious space in Rome, like a Wonderland dedicated to the new trends in contemporary figurative art. The Gallery will open its program for 2014 with the personal by Ray Caesar, a visionary artist, well-known all over the world, and unquestioned leader of the Digital Art.
Caesar is considered one of the most important representatives of Pop Surrealism, a movement born in the Los Angeles area at the end of 70ties, in the environment of underground pop art, graffiti, pop music, comics and cartoons. The artist gives a personal interpretation of this graphic universe, setting it in a Victorian and rococo style atmosphere, and revisiting it in fairy-like clue. In his fairy tales Caesar always introduces an estranged element, with a touch of erotic and macabre environment, just to bewilder the delicate elegance of his heartless nymphs. Together with new works of art in 20 copies, just created for the gallery which has the exclusive agency in Italy, five new works in one copy, the famous single varnished collected by Madonna and by other artist belonging to the show business, will be exhibited. Ray Caesar, although he has already exhibited his works of art in Italy, will be present at the inauguration for the first time and will entertain with the press and the collectors for a reserved meeting.
Ray Caesar is an original charismatic character, his thought is independent and genial, able to match the undoubted artistic skill, an extraordinary availability, a rare liberty of expression; furthermore he has the talent to reveal his inner world by intense and poetic words, able to involve the audience like his imagines. Instead of making a list of his successes, we are trying to let his works of art speak; meanwhile, we are giving him voice by this interview, which he has answered to, with much irony and avoiding any kind of auto censorship.
When did you perceive presences and heard voices for the first time? Did this occur during your childhood?
I remember being about 5 or 6 years old and seeing a woman sit by my bed. She spoke kind and gentle words which was a very unusual thing for me at that time of life. No one else mentioned her or remembered her or spoke of her. I still hear her to this day and I just simply accept her on her own terms. I call her Hope.
How did you transform fear and anguish during your youth? And how does this happen nowadays?
I did it by hiding that fragile and gentle part of myself into a window I made in my own mind. I placed all my fears into a beautiful inner world and today all I am doing is making that window available through making pictures of it in this world.
Why do your sweetest porcelain dolls cut the wedding cake with a sinister butcher-like knife? What idea of marriage do the wedding dress and the knife suggest?
The wedding is the marriage of the disparate parts of ourselves... the parts we know and the parts we don't. The mysteries of all the lives that live inside this one entity called “self”. The cake is the celebration and the sacrifice of innocence and the sweetness of life. The knife and the cutting are the sacrificial hunt for the things we desire and share... the basic instinct to survive is to consume life and fight for the right to live as there is a brutal side to us as a species and as individuals. Some place in all this madness is kindness and beauty and love and perhaps most of all… Hope.
What has changed, in your artistic life, the relationship with your wife? In what way has the Japanese culture influenced you? And the Samurai sword?
I met my wife when I was 15 and her Japanese culture affected me a great deal. Her father had survives a Russian prison camp after WWII and he was a very quiet man that understood I had difficulty from my own childhood life. He very quietly taught me the ways of Bushido... to balance violence and anger with gentleness and patience. That something worth doing is worth doing well.
You said that you were dog born. How do you feel in a dog skin? What relationship exists between the dog who is inside you and the one living with you and your wife?
I was born in 1958, the year of the dog. I lived as a dog born into a family of wolves and I accept life on these terms just as a dog does. What I love about dogs are that they are kind and gentle and willing to make a fool of themselves but when it comes down to it they are willing to lay their life to defend you without a second thought. They balance violence and gentleness better than any creature on Earth and I feel we have a lot to learn from them.
What spiritual legacy have your mother and sister left you after their death? Does it happen to you to “meet” them when you “frequent” the fantastic world where you are creating your angels?
I have a condition called Sleep Paralysis and when I wake at night I find it hard to move and for some reason I see visions. My mother occasionally appears at this time... often as a child. When I see her in my dreams it becomes a catalyst for lucid dreaming and the awareness that I am in a dream. Its quite often that I bring back images from these dreams and more often feelings and emotions that are hard to put into words so I make images of them.
You have worked for 17 years, as a photographer, in a pediatric hospital. There, you saw human beings that were welcome and suffered for any kind of diseases, physical malformations, or even in agony. How and how much has such an experience influenced your way of representing a child, an object or a scenario?
I create a little world for them in my work. A small heaven that a disquiet spirit can embody. I make a world where man and nature can never hurt them again and in this little world they are in power and can hunt back all the things taken from them... they can hunt back their innocence.
Did you ever occur to be visited in your fantastic world, by some of the children who died in the hospital, and to reveal you a secret, or teach something? Can you tell us some episodes?
Memory is a strange thing and it is tied to our subconscious in such a way that evokes meaning in our dreams and thoughts. My work is tied to the experience of that hospital as it is to my childhood and present. I do often dream of that vast hospital and in my dreams it is huge with many hidden corridors and vast meeting areas. Some dreams are pleasant and others are not but they all feel like a part of me in some very deep way. I do very vividly remember a little boy called Stephen who was tiny and lived in the hospital all his short life. He was born with only half a heart. I remember when my niece had heart surgery herself I entered her room while she was still recovering... I remember that little boy sitting in her room watching over her. He smiled and told me his name... I do not know if it was reality or a vision. All I know is that my niece remembers him sitting there too.
Why do the limbs of your figures transform themselves into spider or bat legs, or fish tentacles? Is there a connection with the sensuality and eroticism expressed by your nymph? Why do the metamorphoses start just from the limbs?
My father had a severe form of childhood arthritis and his feet were very deformed. His toes were twisted and malformed as were parts of his feet and lower legs. I remember them almost like hoven feet. I remember very carefully taking off his shoes as my father sat in pain after coming home from work and placing his feet in a bowl of water. I remember thinking that we are not always what we seem under our clothing and that has always been a metaphor for not always being what we think we are under our skin.
What message do you intend to communicate by the contrast between the deadly white face and the red lips of you angels?
As a child I used to dress up in my mother and sisters clothing and I would put on eyemakup and red lips... I looked much older and it was an attempt to escape my life and live another and never be found. I remeber looking at my deathly white face with deep red lips in the mirror and thinking one day I will make a picture of that. I think we are all dancing between life and death and that death may not be what we think it is.
When do you depict scenarios taken from your previous life, are you aware of the age you are living at that moment?
I mix it all up... the past the present and the future and the world of my subconscious which seems timeless. Having dissociative identity disorder it is like living with distorted time. I can be lost in the past or even another life while just walking down the street and hours can pass before something knocks me out of a very deep daydream.
Which is the place – or places – of your memory where you feel sure and more at ease?
I never feel sure and rarely feel at ease... Ah! I am not sure I would even be able to manage if I did. Perhaps that's why I keep making places in my work to feel calm but something very much like mystery always creeps in to unsettle that calm.
The obsession for the clock reminds to the flabby clocks painted by Dalì: how does your time roll over? Is there a sequence between past, present and future, or do you live the dimension of an absolute time?
With my dissociative disorder I am often lost in time a little bit. My work takes me back and even forward into a future I thought was going to be that had its roots in the past. I still have multiple visions of the future but I always end up being aware that I will only realise it by being in the present. I think time is fluid and soft and an illusion.
Your illustrative attention is often focused on hair or feet: are you more connected with the earth or the sky?
I feel connected to both. I have a sense of this earth like a living feminine thing. The thin layer of soil and atmosphere and vegetation and the life living in this thin skin is such a fragile thing. I feel connected to this living world as if it is the source of consciousness itself.
Your female children's faces resemble to your wife and yourself. Which is the idea behind? The biblical fusion between masculine and feminine or an angelic and asexual being?
My children are archetypes of the divine in us and in this way they represent spiritual growth. We all have male and female counterpoints and I sense a definite femininity in my endeavour to create that is balanced with my male side. We are born on this world to procreate and by procreating with art I am showing there are multiple ways of doing this other than having physical children. Perhaps procreation is not just human life but creating hope for the future in creativity and healing in all its forms.
Fairy tales have always an idyllic start and an happy end, although there is always an antagonist who obstacles the reaching of the goal. On the contrary, in your representations the idyllic and devilish elements coexist: hence, what does your fairy tale tell?
My fairy tale is that the protagonist and antagonist are both inside the one person. That the angel of love and courage and hope in each and every one of us must reach inside the darkness of who we are and take that fearful demon within ourselves and gently bring it out to the light of day and walk down the path of life hand in hand.
Your works of art are pervaded by dualism: Eros and Thanatos, masculine and feminine, peace and storm. Such an alternation is a sort of balance between opposite elements, or rather a bursting fire involved in an apparent calm?
In one way I do like to show a vertical division of contrast but also a more subtle narrative on a lateral division of human nature. In other worlds there is light and dark but there is often mystery and wonder in the dark and occasionally a festering banality in the light of day. I try to look at contrasts in this way with lateral thinking. This is a thought process for me but also a way of mixing my intuitive process.
Everybody’s life is a puzzle of nods: how do you release the snares that keep you in a prison?
I bring the deep dark thoughts of my mind to the light of day. I work very hard at creating many bridges and doors and windows between my subconscious and conscious mind. There is an old song called Die Gedanken sind frei, is a German song about the freedom of thought and whenever I feel in a metaphorical prison I think of this song.
Why are your beautiful Victorian ladies en jewelled by flies, termites or insects? Are them organisms which were born inside them or do they belong to an external world, unable to grab the sweet sound of beauty?
Insects are often a fun metaphor for the subconscious thoughts that pervade us, the life that lives around us that we are often unaware of. Fleas in the hair and ants that live in our gardens and flies and spiders in our house and home. There are cities of life living behind that wall in your living room just as there are cities of memories and thoughts in your subconscious mind.
Light invades your figures and illuminates them as they were true photos, putting in evidence the faces, the pleats of the dresses, the body expression, as well as the contrasts and the brightness of the skin, as they were classic paintings. How much time do you devote to the study of these beams of light rays?
My work itself is a lifetime of study... that's really all it is in the end. A lifetime of study to find the illusive image and absolute wonder and beauty and mystery I will never quite get right… but I will live and die trying.
How are you inspired by music, for instance a note or a symphony? Which is the first image that comes to your mind when you think to the Gymnopedie by Satie?
I often wonder why a few notes by a single hand on a piano keyboard can bring tears of joy to us. There is something magical in all forms of music... even the sounds of the garden at night are like a symphony. I love the strange mixture of gentle melancholy of Satie's music and find its rhythm is in harmony with my own mind. This strange little man who lived a century ago communicates to me as if he was in the same room as I am right now. Time is truly an illusion and minds can speak to each other over centuries when art is used as that language.
Have you ever illustrated an olfactory sensation? If yes, how has it stimulated your creativity?
Perfume... I constantly have this on my mind when I work. To mix all kinds of questionable ingredients into something that evokes memory and passion and feeling. I mix questionable things like love and gentleness and beauty with pain and fear and darkness and sensuality and taboo. In many ways my work is like making a perfume. They now say there is a quantum explanation for how we smell and that molecules affect our olfactory sense and can even evoke a lost memory.
The white canvas and the flat screen of a computer: in which different ways do they crowd your imagination?
My mind is too full to ever really see a blank canvas. In fact its more of a crowded surface of a multitude of ideas waiting to be born. Whenever I see a blank screen or blank canvas I immediately see possibility... which turns into probability and then turns into concrete reality.
What do you imagine there may be behind an opened door? And behind a closed door? Which doors do you wish to open again?
I always think that for every door both open and closed are ten more doors... and ten more beyond each one of those and so on ad infinitum. My pictures are like a map of a huge mansion house by the sea... the images are merely a map of all those doors.
When you move from your world that is protected by the art, are you able to savour the voyage towards other realities, Italy for instance? What do you expect from your travel to Italy? Which other travels would you present to your inner child?
Travelling to Italy will be wonderful as it is the home of my ancestors. Back in the 15th century a man named Giulio Cesare Adelmare from Venice was a physician to Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth the I. He was knighted Sir Julius Caesar by Queen Elizabeth the I (as she always called him "her Julius Caesar”)… my ancestry to this man is actually quite easy to trace as many of them held high office in Govt and in the mid 1800s a very famous family of Cricketers (the 12 Caesars) was descended from them and there is a direct link from them to my family. I also think there is a book written of the Italians in Queen Elizabeths Court that provides much information. Not only will I love to visit Italy I have always had the serious thought of living there.
Your The Beauty and the Beast and your small rabbits dressed like tiny ladies are so delicious that they would be perfect illustrations for a fairy tale. Have you ever thought to represent a true story from the beginning to the end by a series of imagines?
I would love to find the time to develop several stories I have in mind. I actually began all this by writing a children's book which I came to realise might not actually be suitable for children. I would very much life to create a non-linear story on the computer using a game engine. A world of unusual mystery which can be explored and unfolds like a story with multiple endings.
At times, a fairy tale is imagined by a writer, at times is represented by an illustrator; but, if we add the dreams of the first to the fantasies of the second or vice versa, a true creative input may rise. Could you work in couple or are you a solitary animal who creates only inside the drawers of his personal imagination?
I am basically a solitary creator but I always believe there are people out there that make very good teams and work in harmony. Its like trying to find a life mate though… it either happens or it doesn't. In some ways I would very like to find the right person or people to work with on many ideas. I am often approached by film companies but I prefer to work on stories in which I help develop the concept. I like books but as I mentioned before I would love to develop a new method of story telling using game technology and utilizing virtual reality.
Sometimes in your paintings – may I take the liberty to call them in this way? – appear some trees or a flower, some delicious small animals. Why don't you invest part of your energies to personify plants and animals? For instance, how do a flower, or a tree or a butterfly suffer or rejoice? What do you think they could tell you?
I would love to do that. It’s an area I explore often in drawing and studies but it is always about time and having enough of it. I have done a few pieces that are non-figurative and hope to continue with more animals and other forms and even multiple figurative pieces.
Do you like creating your famous single varnished? Is this a joke? Or is it just a form of attention to collectors and the audience? Or even an effort to be original? Does it occur to you to suffer when you must give up one of your single varnished?
I am actually moving into an area where I may only do one image of each piece. The editions have been wonderful but they take a lot of time and effort of not just myself but a team of people. They work very well if you want to show all over the world. I think it would be relaxing and rewarding to just work on single pieces as they are quite a bit of fun for me and I like the finality of them. I am 55 this year and I will definitely take a more retiring attitude to making work after this point as I haven't planned any other solo shows after Italy.
Your figures seems to belong to a memory of the past: how do you see the future of the man? And what about your future as an artist?
How can we face the future without learning from the foundation of the past? As a species we have created wonders but also made mistakes and a reflection on what was good from the past tells us what we may or may not want to give up or create for our future. We are creative animals at heart but there is the element of the shark in us that could rip this world bare if we are not careful. I will personally continue to sit in the sun and make things I love just like a child playing and talking to himself without a care in the world… I will do it for as long as I can.
Ray Caesar personality gives the opportunity to explore the mysterious and unknown ways of art and his answers represent a real gift. Weren't Caesar be an unquestioned artist of the image, he would be, anyway, a genial craftsman of the word, able to create itineraries of knowledge that leave out of any limit. He answers with simplicity and wisdom to any questions, showing the spontaneity of a child who has freed the steeds of his fantasy and has let them run at breakneck speed on the prairies of his subconscious. It is not easy to meet people of such a level of awareness and who have, meanwhile, preserved such a great humility. I would like to open again the infinite doors of his mind, asking him to reveal other mysteries, begging him to take us hand in hand, lead us in his spacecraft of time, and make us all of a sudden travel through the infinite realities in which we are plunged. I would like to convince him to bring this message of freedom and peace to those who still persist in considering material reality the sole possible truth. The soul of an artist prefers to fly over, much over, just where the poet matches his beloved:
No en tu nombre, si lo dicen,
no en tu imagen, si la pintan.
Detrás, detrás, más allá.
Text by Patrizia Boi
Translation by Franco Romanò