Charles Ray

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through July 4

By Fred Camper

There’s a feeling of disaster–past, present, or impending–in many of the pieces in the midcareer Charles Ray retrospective now at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Chicago-born Los Angeles artist is best known for his mannequinlike figures, but Firetruck (1993), a huge red fire truck parked outside the museum, sets the tone for the show. Seen close-up, the piece looks less like a real fire truck than a giant replica of a toy: much of the “equipment” is painted on, with a minimum of detailing. An early piece on view inside, Untitled (One-Stop Gallery) (1971/’98), a re-creation of a work from Ray’s days as an art student, has four connected concrete blocks rising from the floor at an angle, supported only by a long, curving metal bar that connects the top block to a nearby wall; a little poke with a finger might send it all crashing down.

While the attention-grabbing qualities of these works are consistent with an art world bent on turning heads, Ray’s work is successful because it pays attention to craft and balance–everything here is elegantly made and pleasing to the eye. More important, Ray imbues his work with a restless self-questioning, a desire to look beneath the surface, to investigate what makes things tick. His great achievement is melding the sometimes superficial aspects of postmodernism–such as the direct appropriation of forms–with a modernist interest in articulating the nature of materials that goes beyond mere self-referentiality. Ultimately Ray’s art causes the viewer to question how the world, or some part of it, functions.

Thus, How a Table Works (1986) offers an arrangement of mundane objects–a flowerpot, a thermos–in what might be a banal still life, except there is no tabletop; each object is supported by one or two metal arms. The effect is like looking at an architectural plan, or an explanatory diagram of the presumed lines of force within a table that resist gravity and support the objects. The unmasking of these forces also hints at a potential for disaster–they alone prevent the objects from falling. Ray returns to this subject in Table (1990), a glass-topped table supporting six glass objects, including a bowl and a pitcher. Here he’s cut the bottoms away from each of these vessels and cut corresponding holes in the table underneath them. Liquid poured into the pitcher will fall to the floor. By making these vessels and tables so startlingly dysfunctional, Ray actually heightens our awareness of their traditional functions.

Many of Ray’s early works, as described and documented in Paul Schimmel’s helpful catalog essay, combined sculpture and performance through the use of his own body. His limbs would protrude from openings in a box, for example, or he would tie himself to a tree branch. One might infer that the use of his body created a kind of event, breaching the art-life barrier and adding a loud “look at me” element. While these qualities are present in the work included in this show, they are generally there as only one side of an equation; the art-as-event character is offset by such countervailing factors as symmetrical composition, restrained use of color, or painstaking attention to detail. The works that look as if they’re about to collapse–or the ones that leak–are elegantly balanced compositions that achieve a kind of perfect stasis even as they hint at catastrophe. Schimmel points out that Ray’s principal leisure activity is sailing; a sailor must balance the force of the wind against the sails and the tilt of the boat to prevent capsizing. “Balance” is in fact a key word that, in different ways, could be said to describe every piece in the show.

Ray’s oeuvre can be seen as a kind of overall balancing act. While some works immediately command attention, others may seem unexceptional at first, requiring the viewer to participate more actively. Table Top (1989) appears to be a mundane arrangement of ordinary objects, such as a plate and a flowerpot, a kind of three-dimensional still life notable for its quiet simplicity. On my visits, most museumgoers pass by it fairly quickly, not noticing that the six circular objects are actually rotating. The speed is set at the very limit of perception, so one has to stare at a small spot or a speck of dust to see the movement. Here even motion acts as a balancing element in the composition: some objects move clockwise, while others move counterclockwise. The sense of disparity, if not disaster, is as strong as in Table: it’s as strange as the pitchers without bottoms.

Schimmel describes one Ray piece as focusing on “the instability of perceptual experience,” and in one way or another this is true of every piece in the show. But it’s instability with a point. Momentary optical illusions, surprising inversions, and changes of scale all cause the spectator to go beyond passive viewing, to question the nature of what is shown. The rotating objects in Table Top remind us that objects on tables are usually static, but they also initiate a long train of thought leading one to reflect on how even static objects are, on a planetary scale, actually rotating too. It’s as if the threads of reality are being pulled apart to reveal the underlying structure.

One piece, Ink Box (1986), reflects on the differences and similarities between liquid and solid forms of matter. A black cube, its sides are solid but its top is a surface of black ink, revealing that the whole is a container filled with ink; flush with the top, glossy and reflective, the ink presents a glassy perfection just as smooth as the solid sides and marred only by the occasional dust speck. But there is also a danger–one could be deceived and fall in. There are some apocryphal stories about the exhibition of this piece, including one in which an elegantly dressed woman’s pearls slipped in as she leaned over to look. Such stories notwithstanding, this black version of Narcissus’s pool threatens to make a real mess should one breach its surface.

The particular balance achieved in sailing, of course, ultimately involves keeping one’s self above the surface of the water; a large part of the actual sailing, made possible by the action of the rudder and the centerboard, occurs below the surface. A sailor is acutely aware of both air and water and their relationship to his boat. I was reminded of this by Untitled (Glass Chair) (1978/’89), in which an ordinary wooden chair has a large sheet of plate glass suspended from its legs, parallel to the floor. The precariousness of the plate glass makes one anxious in anticipation of a future shattering; yet the piece as a whole seems completely stable. Once again Ray achieves a balance between performative implications and sculptural permanence, between spatial serenity and a whiff of chaos.

But Ray’s more provocative pieces have brought the artist most of his present notoriety. The modestly titled Unpainted Sculpture (1997) is based on an actual object: Ray scoured insurance lots, Schimmel tells us, looking for the “platonic car wreck”; he told another interviewer that he “looked for a wreck that I thought someone died in.” He then reproduced it, piece by piece, in fiberglass. The resulting assemblage, colored a neutral gray, is “hot” and “cool” at once. A beautiful mix of balance and imbalance, the driver’s area is so crushed that a wheel is askew, while the rear half seems barely damaged. One quickly notices that the entire car is tilting; peculiar bends echo the crash up front. While any specific narrative is removed, the possibility of catastrophe, hovering over the viewer in a work like Ink Box, has already been realized.

Ray has ventured into the realm of more explicit cultural commentary with some of his mannequinlike sculptures. Though their effect is never as openly “disastrous” as that of a car wreck, there’s always something more than a little wrong; their disparities underline much that is odd or unhinged about our world. He told journalists at the exhibit’s press opening that Family Romance (1993) was in part a response to right-wing propaganda about “family values.” It certainly seems designed to tweak conservatives. The ideal family of four–mom and dad and brother and sister–hold hands in a straight line. No problem here, except they’re all the same size–and they’re all nude. There really should be no problem with their nudity, but even a “liberal” observer might think, if only subconsciously, of incest. Family Romance is unsettling in several ways. The children are sculpted with plenty of baby fat, while the parents have relatively idealized bodies; this gives the kids an almost mutantlike quality. By making the figures identically sized, Ray points out how odd it is for us to see children as equals to their parents.

At the press opening, Ray stressed his concern with craft and his debt to classical sculpture, which was good to hear coming from an artist functioning in the pomo environment. The figures of Family Romance are in fact carefully proportioned and detailed. But their flesh-colored surfaces don’t have the kind of startling perfection or inner complexity common in great classical figures. Instead we get something more appropriate to our times: figures based not on the gods but at least in part on store-window mannequins. These figures, midway between realistic individuals and the flat artificiality of dolls, set up a tension between the figure as individuated human and the figure as culturally determined automaton. The very real sculptural values Ray has given his figures still don’t quite make them “live” in the way that a classical figure might. The touch of Barbie is just as important to his meaning.

In Male Mannequin (1990), Ray used an actual store mannequin, but grafted onto the crotch is a realistically painted casting of his own genitals. The disparity here is startling, and the detailing of the genitalia heightens one’s awareness of the flat, bland, sanitized flesh of the mannequin–and, by proxy, of mass culture in general. But as Schimmel points out, using his own figure also opened Ray to the charge of narcissism, a charge the show hardly refutes–we see quite a few versions of the artist here. But he also seems to be conscious of this issue, taking it as his explicit subject in the show’s only scandalous work, Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley… (1992).

In this piece, eight realistic sculptures of Ray himself, all nude, pose as a group about to begin an orgy. There are no actual sex acts shown, but several penises are placed at the point of entering a mouth or an anus. The fantasy of having sex with oneself is a known male fetish, of course; but by stopping short of depicting actual insertion, Ray keeps his image at the point of fantasy. As in many other works, there is a balance between the promise of an impending event–here, a bizarre orgy–and a kind of stasis that prevents it from happening. The bodies are posed with careful attention to issues such as enclosed versus open space; figures face or touch each other while walling off the intimate spaces between them. They seem to both connect and stand apart, prohibited from connecting further.

But one can never escape the sculpture’s most notable feature–the figures are all the same person–and this results in its most powerful effect: a horrifying self-entrapment, a circularity from which there is no escape. The resulting feeling of sadness, of utter pointlessness and emptiness, has been ascribed many times to narcissists who lose themselves in self-absorption. Ultimately they’re destroyed by willing away the grounding reality of the external world.