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Visual Arts

Ray Caesar, the Canadian artist who turned down Madonna Add to ...

Ray Caesar requests that we meet at a Starbucks in Toronto’s PATH, a system of bland subterranean walkways beneath the city’s financial district, where a sea of people in dark suits creates an energy that is at once frenetic and mind-numbing.

He’s wearing a black turtleneck sweater. His eyes are soft, his smile is gentle. At 52, his hair is more salt than pepper. You might mistake him for a mid-level office hack grabbing a coffee on casual Friday.

Could this really be the artist behind the eerily beautiful, otherworldly and rather disturbing canvases (dames with spider legs, girls eating flies) hanging on the walls of such boldface buyers as shock rocker Marilyn Manson? The same guy who corresponds with Madonna? Who was recruited to work with fashion demigod Riccardo Tisci? Shouldn’t he look more like Edward Scissorhands? Or at least Karl Lagerfeld?

Don’t be fooled.

Ceasar acknowledges head-on just how complex he is. He’s chosen the seemingly uninspired venue for our meeting, he explains, because he’s “slightly agoraphobic,” and his anxiety about being outdoors is eased when he can sit down to sketch at various points along this vast web of underground corridors. He also struggles with dissociative identity disorder: more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. He also insists he was born a dog.

Even the way he works isn’t quite what you’d expect. While there are shades of Fragonard, Blake and Dali in his pieces – haunting combinations of the rococo, the romantic and the surreal – he composes them entirely on his home computer using 3-D graphics software more commonly used in the production of mainstream film, TV, and video games.

For every suggestion of fetish in his vaguely alien figures, who often reveal a glimpse of bust or a peek of thigh, there are also well-rendered architectural elements: ornate interiors and tactile period fabrics. Sometimes, Caesar even adds objects into the composition (filling up closed drawers, for instance) that don’t necessarily appear in his prints.

Every detail reflects something deeply personal and darkly macabre. Consider the contents of a cabinet in a piece titled Silent Partner, one of 17 works in a solo exhibit currently on show in New York. “There’s a head, there’s a heart, there’s genitals and maybe a liver,” says Caesar. “This woman has dismembered her partner and separated him into pieces.

“It’s kind of what I do to myself. I separate whatever it is [I’m feeling]. It works very, very well for a child under stress. It doesn’t work so well for an adult.”

Caesar, who was born in England and moved with his family to Canada in 1967, says that issues with his father contributed to the arrival of Harry, an “alternate,” when he was 10. The boy is disguised as a girl in Caesar’s art, and remains present in his daily life as an alter ego. “Harry is beyond anger – he enjoys it,” says Caesar. “My job is to keep Harry under control.”

Sort of.

“I remember making a picture when I was a kid of something horrific,” he says. “My mother came up and looked at it and said, ‘Why can’t you just do a flower?’ and so the next time I think I did something horrific with a flower.”

But art, rebellious, eccentric or otherwise, was not Caesar’s first career.

For 17 years, he worked at the Hospital for Sick Children in the photo department, where he documented anything questionable among the patients, from accidents to abuse. The characters in his images appear ageless for a reason. “They’re all the kids at the hospital,” he says. “You see them in the worst states they can be in, so you give them a lot of power. You give them the things you know how to give them: strength, a sanctuary, security.”

“Art for me has always been a sanctuary,” he continues. “You close your eyes and go to this place. But I don’t always want to make it a happy place.”

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