Two of the art world’s most controversial current works are on display in the new exhibit “Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997-2014,” which opened at the Art Institute last Friday.
Boy With Frog, spotted at a distance as you enter the show, and Huck and Jim, the last work you’ll see before you exit, are giant male figures—one a nine-year-old boy, the other a youth and an adult. Everybody’s nude and painted white, and Huck is bending over, as if to scoop something up.
Both works were commissioned as public art for high-profile locations, Boy With Frog for a Venetian promontory overlooking the city, Huck and Jim for a plaza outside New York’s new Whitney Museum. And both were rejected for their intended settings.
Actually, Boy With Frog was ejected. Commissioned by luxury-brand tycoon (and Christie’s auction house owner) François Pinault, the eight-foot-tall statue was installed in Venice in 2009, replacing a 19th-century lamppost under which it was traditional for couples to kiss. A draw for tourists but a target of criticism from locals, it stood there till 2013, when the city removed it in favor of a replica of the lamppost.
Huck and Jim never made it to the Whitney at all. It was rejected before completion, when, as Calvin Tomkins reports in a recent New Yorker profile of Ray, the Whitney curators decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to put the work in the path of the general public.
A similar issue arose with the Art Institute exhibit. According to Tomkins, an initial plan to install the fiberglass model for Huck and Jim outside the entrance of the Modern Wing was scrapped to spare passers-by the full-frontal nudity. In this case Ray, an area native who studied at the School of the Art Institute as a teenager, eventually agreed to put the piece in a gallery, a compromise he’d refused to make at the Whitney.
You can judge for yourself whether the bent young Huck and the nine-foot-tall Jim, sporting a robust phallus that meets the viewer at eye level, would have been a welcome sight for pedestrians headed toward the lake on Monroe. What’s certain is that its scale is wrong for the gallery it’s been shoehorned into.
That’s a contrast to the exceptional breathing room given the rest of the show. Most of the exhibit’s 21 works are widely spaced across three vast rooms on the second floor of the Modern Wing. The shades there are up, and Millennium Park is the backdrop for pieces like Unpainted Sculpture, a full-size fiberglass replica of a wrecked Grand Am. “Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997-2014” covers the period in which the artist turned from abstraction to his present figurative work.
Ray, now 61, was born in Chicago, where his parents ran the Ray-Vogue School (now the Illinois Institute of Art), a commercial art school founded by his grandparents. He spent his first years in South Shore, and most of his youth in Winnetka and at a military school in Aurora, an awkward, probably dyslexic kid with a passion for sailing. After earning fine arts degrees from the University of Iowa and Rutgers, Ray wound up as a professor of art at UCLA. He’s been a performance artist and a minimalist sculptor, but now, with the help of assistants who execute his concepts, he produces computer-refined machine-cut work, mostly large-scale replicas of real people and objects. They can take as long as a decade to complete, and command prices in the millions.
There’s a lot of metal in this literally weighty show. Some of the pieces are solid steel—like the antiheroic ten-ton Horse and Rider (with the artist slouching in the saddle) you have to trek out to the South Garden to see. Most of the human figures, whether in gleaming metal or flat white paint, are eerily smooth, with eyes as blank as those of the ancient Greek statuary that Ray credits as an inspiration and nearly expressionless faces. Genitals, however, are prominent and detailed.
That’s nothing new for Ray, whose canon includes such transgressive (his word) works as Oh, Charley, Charley, Charley, a 1992 masturbation fantasy played out by eight figures of himself. In a brief interview last week he said he expects Huck and Jim will eventually find an outdoor home somewhere and once there will be “strong enough to overcome” any qualms among the populace.
“It’s like the Picasso,” he said. “People objected at first. Now you can’t imagine the city without it.” v