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."
"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."
Caesar left the hospital to work at a company that did special effects for such shows as Stargate, Relic Hunter and the short-lived Total Recall 2070, for which his team was nominated for an Emmy but lost to Star Trek: Voyager.
Around that time, roughly 10 years ago, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and died within three months. Soon after, one of his sisters also succumbed to the disease. During the ordeal, Caesar developed sleep paralysis that led to panic attacks, and with them came the agoraphobia. One episode was so severe, he thought he was having a heart attack.
Caesar had always used art as an outlet. Now, he was ready to let others see his work. As it happened, Belinda Chun, a Toronto art consultant, saw some of his images at a mutual friend's house and introduced him to the gallery world.
Caesar's first solo exhibition was with the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York in 2005. Since then, his prints, which now sell for anywhere from $1,200 to $60,000 (U.S.), have also been included in several group shows around the world – Paris, Manchester, Rome, Santa Monica – and in Toronto, at Lonsdale Gallery.
"The viewer is really drawn in, but at the same time they are drawn to what repels them," says Lonsdale Gallery director Chad Wolfond, who first showed Caesar's work six years ago (but does not represent him). "And I think that's what makes his work really poignant."
Describing Caesar as "very reserved" and "a gentleman," Wolfond adds that he has "become bolder in what he's envisioning" and that it's impossible to look at the images and not form an opinion. "People really love them or hate them. He's struck a chord."
The momentum around him certainly keeps building. Caesar has published three books, the most recent in a limited edition of 500 priced at $500 a piece. He's preparing for a show at the Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles that will be his largest to date. And Chun is overseeing the creation of a private space called Gallery House that will open later this year and feature Ceasar's work alongside paintings by Anita Kunz.
As for the celebrity response, it doesn't faze Caesar, who says he's always surprised to receive thank you e-mails from clients like Jennifer Nicholson, for example, daughter of Jack. "I'm most embarrassed by the ones I don't know. The guys from Metallica bought some of the work, I had no idea who they were. The guy who started all punk music who died – Joey Ramone – his family bought some work," he says, casually.
The fashion world is equally foreign. When Tisci, the creative director for Givenchy, approached Caesar to collaborate on A Magazine, an avant-garde biannual fashion publication, he remembers asking his wife, "What is this place called ja-vin-CHEE?"
Madonna has requested commissioned pieces but Caesar says he works too intuitively to oblige. "I desperately want to, but how do I do it? People want portraits. I don't do portraits."
His decision process, he points out, is never, ever easy. "Every decision I have to make, I go through a little boardroom and I can hear their voices trying to talk.
The takeaway message, he suggests, is a big pot of soup (more minestrone than split pea): "There are different amounts of sexuality, taboo, fear, humour, a little pain, horror, I guess – all these different ingredients. When I first started showing people, they would say, 'What is he, a pedophile?' Well, no. But there's an essence of that in it because that's part of my life. Are they children or not? I don't know. That's really hard. If people say, 'Your work is deviant,' I'll be more deviant the next time. That's the Harry in me.
"It's funny to me, the first thing people pick out. Art is truly like a mirror. If I put humour in there, a funny person will laugh. A person a little fearful will find their fear, whatever it is. That's one of the great things art does."
He also loves being a spectator, and takes any opportunity he can to wander the halls of the Frick or the Metropolitan Museum when visiting New York. "You're feeling the emotion of the artist. You're in their world. It's kind of like the way graveyards should be. It's a communication from the past. It's communicating to you their fashions, and they can make you cry. They can touch you."
His eyes get glassy. And then he smiles.
Caesar is happiest when reading Jane Austen or watching the film adaptations of her books with his wife, a pharmacist who works in oncology research at Princess Margaret Hospital. "She was the first nice person I'd ever met," he says, adding that her Japanese family exposed him to Bushido, the samurai code that taught men how to balance the warrior spirit with compassion. They have been married for 32 years and live in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood with a male mutt (half German shepherd, half coyote) named Bonnie.
Although Caesar has been in therapy for years, much of his progress is the product of his work. "People call it success, but you can still be successful and still have agoraphobia and panic attacks and you deal with disorders, and those days can seem very, very hard. But [this] makes them a little better."
He seems at peace with his scars.
"I have always had this theory," he says. "It's actually one of [my] voices that says there are only two professions in life: healing and creating. And they work best when they're combined. If you think about it, there isn't a single profession worth doing that isn't healing and creating. When you sweep streets, you're creating a clean environment for people to walk in. When you're cleaning a washroom, you're creating a healthy environment for people to be in."
Clearly Caesar has a firm grip on creating. But is he healing himself or others?
"Both. I guess it would have to begin with me," he pauses. "Self-healing."
Caesar's solo exhibition, A Gentle Kind of Cruelty, runs at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York until Feb. 19.