The painting looks stained and frayed at the edges. Haphazardly stored in the basement home of Laguna Beach artist G. Ray Kerciu for decades, he wagers that it might even have been sprinkled with a bit of rat pee. And yet, it has suddenly emerged as the piece de resistance that the artist added at the last minute to a one-man show, “G. Ray Kerciu: A Radical Retrospective.”
The small canvas bears the word “Segregation” with a large X crisscrossing its center. On its sides, he noted the hotbeds of racial segregations, Alabama and Mississippi, and discerning eyes will note a current addition, VA, for Virginia.
The pop-up show opened on Aug. 12, the same day as violence broke out in Charlottesville, Va., during a white supremacists rally over the removal of a Confederate monument. Afterwards, Kerciu decided his first 50-year-retrospective needed to also include his series of Confederate flag paintings, which led to his arrest and recognition by one of the era’s most influential civil rights leader.
“The upcoming march by the hate mongers on Sunday encouraged me to make a statement,” he said. The massive demonstration in Laguna Beach was largely peaceful, with counterprotesters far outnumbering supporters of the anti-illegal immigration rally organizer America First.
Kerciu fearlessly integrated the hate speech he heard while an assistant professor of art at the University of Mississippi in 1962 into his depictions of the Confederate flag and most searingly in “America the Beautiful.” Not repeatable here, those words can be seen at the show located at 2894 S. Coast Highway through Aug. 31. “I wanted to shove that hate thing right back into their faces when I painted the paintings and now put them into this show and into the window,” he said.
Experiencing first-hand the riots by segregationists over the university’s admission of its first African-American student, James Meredith, turned Kerciu’s concern for social justice into a passion.
Ultimately, flag paintings like “White Only” earned him an indictment for violating a Mississippi state law prohibiting the desecration of the Confederate battle flag. “I changed from a mild-mannered artist to a social realist, determined to do the right thing,” he recalled. The arrest earned him national recognition and praise from Malcom X, who started sending him postcards with inspirational messages, recalled Kerciu. He also exhibited the paintings at the prestigious Martha Jackson Gallery along with work by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. “I guess I had my 15 minutes of fame,” he remarked wryly.
“At the time I painted the flags, I had no idea that 50 years later segregationist and Nazis would march together, but then, people who hate tend to love each other,” he said. The flag paintings were exhibited in 2015 at the Laguna Art Museum, where one is on loan.
One of the more prominent canvasses in the current retrospective of paintings, prints and sculptures bears the word “NEVER,” an allusion to the lapel buttons worn by segregationists throughout the South and elsewhere. But, the large mud-hued circle also bears the blurred image of a Nazi swastika, Kerciu’s reminder that the symbol of hate is now being revived along with Nazi slogans and salutes.
In another stars and bars painting titled “White Only,” Kerciu substitutes regular stars with Stars of David. Yet, he wryly notes that the show contains nothing controversial. “It’s just that the confederate flag and the Nazi swastika has once again raised its ugly head,” he said.
The show was originally curated by Andrea Harris-McGee, who organized the works into sections emphasizing Kerciu’s artistic versatility. “G. Ray’s work is about rules and breaking rules, of structure and stability, but there is also conflict, an attraction to instability as seen in his glass work,” said Harris.
“G. Ray is an activist. He’s strong and bold and a lover of life and humanity. He is in the trenches and wants everyone to have a fair shake,” she added.
Jorg Dubin, another Laguna Beach artist with a social activist history of his own, lauded the overall show for its variety of mediums and styles but focused on the artist’s social political work.
“It is interesting that works done 50 years ago have become fresh and relevant again, not that the relevancy has ever been diminished,” he said.
Dubin said he has yet to begin works protesting current trends. “Initially I wanted to stay away from current topics, but as divisions deepen by the day, all creative people should say something,” he said. “My contribution so far has been studying historical posters and re-manipulating images relating to current topics. It is so easy to mock our political environment just now.”
After moving to Southern California in 1963, Kerciu taught printmaking and other art courses at Cal State Fullerton, instilling social awareness in his students along with insisting on first rate craftsmanship as validation of expression until he retired in 2002.
During the late 1990s, he spearheaded the fight against the merger between the Laguna Art Museum and the then Newport Harbor Art Museum and presided over the LAM board of directors after the merger was tabled. “If you see injustice, you have to fight it as much as you can. We saved the museum,” he said.
He also noted that this is his first solo retrospective: “I’ve never had a show in Laguna Beach and I’ve lived here for 50 years. This is an appropriate show because it does show what I’ve done in five decades.”