Stephen Gray's current medium of choice is digitally manipulated photographs, but up until about eight years ago, the Anchorage-based artist was a bit of a Luddite. A photographer, Gray never made the switch to digital, choosing film for most of his 25 year career. In fact, he didn't even own a computer. But once he got one in 2001, the effect on his art was dramatic and liberating.
"It just opens everything up for you if you use (the computer) as a photography tool," he said.
Gray, one of three solo artists whose work is on display at the Alaska State Museum through January, creates composite images that integrate elements both realistic and fantastic, funny and sinister, childish and mature. His works are photographic collages that bring together disparate elements from a variety of sources to create entirely new worlds. All are fueled by the tension between the innocence of childhood - real or imagined - and darker impulses at play in the adult world.
Gray's latest body of work centers around the character of a young boy, Billy, whose cartoonish aspect is offset by Gray's use of realistic textures and images that give the works a sculptural, three-dimensional quality.
Billy first came on the scene almost by accident about five years ago, Gray said, after he came across an antique tin toy in a shop and was immediately drawn to it.
"He reminded me of me, because he had that short, blond crew cut I used to have." Gray said.
He quickly became aware of the rich vein of imagery Billy inspired, and has since created about 50 pieces that center on his character. Only 13 of his images are featured in the museum show.
"Once I started using him, there was no question that I had to keep using him."
Billy is cobbled together from images Gray has found in books and photographs, and, true to the original, has the feel of a boy from the 1950s. Though he's is a little boy, his wide eyes and impish grin hint at the cruelty and carelessness that is as much a part of childhood as innocence.
"He has this precociousness and a certain innocence that people are drawn to, but there's that duality," he said. "A lot of times he's up to no good."
The environments Gray chooses for Billy are often deliberately unchildlike, involving sexual themes or potentially disturbing imagery. In one photo, half-clothed women fan out around a smiling Billy, in another he watches scantily clad women on TV, as a pair of bunny ears sits on the set. "Queen Kong" shows a female monster with multiple breasts clutching a tiny, frowning Billy in her paw.
But though he contains his own darkness, Billy is too young to fully grasp the mature themes around him, Gray said. In that way, he's similar to the kids in South Park who merely guess at what they pretend to understand.
"They're too young to process the information on sex or whatever; it's beyond their ages," he said. "They're trying to figure it out and process it, and most of the time they screw it up."
Though Billy reminds Gray of himself in some ways, he said Billy's interaction with sexy grown women is not based on his personal experience.
"It's more like when you're a little boy and another kid's got the girlie pictures - it's that forbidden thing."
The dark quality inherent in many of his current images has always been a part of his work, Gray said, but the humor is a relatively recent element.
"When I started doing it I realized it's a perfect compliment to the darkness, to play the humor off the dark quality," he said.
The pieces are provocative by design, but whether they are viewed as frightening or funny is something Gray leaves very much up to the viewer. He is a strong believer in allowing his audience to "finish the story" for themselves.
"You never want to dictate to (your audience) how to interpret something you've created," he said.
"If you want to make something that's never going to offend someone or throw them off, that's not what I'm interesting in doing."