“It reminds me of being in Canada and going swimming in the middle of the night,” the young man was saying. He was good looking, tousle haired, and had a motorcycle helmet in his hand.
His friend–taller, almost spindly–nodded amusement. “That’s true, man, that’s really true.”
They were standing in the main room of Feature at 340 W. Huron, a gallery in the heart of Chicago’s “SuHu,” the art district on West Superior and Huron streets. The object that spelled Canada for them was an ordinary bathtub filled with black dye. Sitting on a short, wooden pedestal, the tub had black glass-tube-like spokes coming out of its sides. Painted black on the outside, it was the original white on the inside, contrasting with the rippling black dye. Balanced on the pedestal, which stood unbolted to the floor, it served as an axis to the activity in the room. Inevitably, everyone came back to it, staring.
“Sort of like skinny-dipping, is that it?” asked the taller man.
“Yeah, actually, skinny-dipping!” exclaimed the guy with the motorcycle helmet. The two laughed, slapping the air with a quick high five. “What’s this called?”
They searched the nearby walls for the work’s title, finally finding the white postcard. Charles Ray: Tub With Black Dye, it read. “Bathtub, water, black dye.”
“Tub with black dye–that’s boring!” said the tall guy.
“Yeah, he should have called it Night in Canada.”
“Or Skinny-Dipping,” said the tall, skinny guy. “You know, I could have made this.”
“Yeah,” said his friend, “but would you?” They laughed again, moving on to another room where Nancy Chunn had hung a series of political paintings exploiting the geography of troubled countries.
Standing by the tub was its creator, Charles Ray, a sort of sandy-haired Clark Kent type in jeans and a sweater. Behind him on the wall were two huge, beautiful photographs of a muscular man posing in black briefs. The artist, Lance Carlson, a smallish man with slight features, called them Figure as a Constructive System and Body as an Obsessive Theme.
“Is he guarding the thing or what?” a fat woman in a raincoat asked about Ray.
“Well, he should,” said her companion, a thin man with a sour expression. “The damn thing could tip over any minute.”
“I’m glad I wore a raincoat,” chuckled the fat woman. “I’m prepared.”
“Very funny,” said the man, still sour, “And he wants $8,000 for that. Incredible.”
As the room filled up, Ray watched amused as people came to his tub. For many it was a surprise, unseen through the jungle of gallery-goers until they were practically on top of it. At one point, a woman in a fur jacket, seemingly indifferent to the piece, placed her hand on its rim for balance as she struggled to get around it.
“Whoa!” cautioned a crew-cutted man with a silver cross dangling from his ear. “Are you crazy or something?” The woman stared ahead, dismissing him with a disdainful glance and made her way to the bar in the back. Ray wiggled an eyebrow from behind his glasses and took a chug of his beer.
“What happens if it tips over?” asked a young woman with deliberately uneven hair.
“It’ll ruin thousands of dollars worth of art that’s being stored downstairs,” said a woman in a denim jacket with a green shoulder bag strapped around her body.
“No kidding.” The uneven-haired woman seemed fascinated and turned back to the tub. “Think it’ll tip?”
“You know he’s got paper towels in the back, waiting to go,” said a small man with thinning hair.
“Paper towels? More like a giant sponge,” said the denim woman.
“Somebody said one of the tubes was leaking already,” the woman with the uneven hair said.
“I don’t see anything on the floor,” said the one in denim. “God, I wouldn’t do this. The insurance rates for it must be ridiculous.”
“Yeah, Feature’s ruined if that tips,” said the uneven-haired woman.
“Well, but do you like it?” a woman in a man’s suit jacket asked the guy with thinning hair.
“Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of liking it or not; I mean, everybody’s looking at it,” he said. “But, you know, I look at it too; I’m just fascinated it’s not bolted down.”
By now Charles Ray had a coterie of people standing guard with him, including a noted art expert who sipped on his beer while appraising the bathtub. He was short, stocky, with longish hair tied behind his head. He had been harping on something for a long time. “It seems to me,” he said, “that the outside shouldn’t be black. It should be gray or some other color.” Ray took another swallow of his beer and nodded.
“Do you like it?” the woman in the man’s suit jacket asked the art expert.
“Like it?” He seemed to think about it for a minute, then grinned. “I have to like it; the artist is a friend of mine.”
“It’s interesting, Jules, I’ll say that for it,” a mother was saying to her son about the tub. Jules was a teenager with short spiky hair dressed in black from head to toe.
“Look here, Mom, you’ll like this,” Jules said pointing to one of the walls near the tub, where 14 jars of canned fruits and vegetables sat on a shelf. A different leaf motif was sandblasted onto the front of each jar. They contained corn, potatoes, cherries, green peppers, apples, and other edibles. “This is great!” Jules said with a huge, amused smile. His mother was reading the title card on the wall. “But it’s just canned goods from the Pennsylvania Dutch country,” she said. “That’s what the card says.”
“Yeah!” Jules loved it.
“I guess I don’t get it, honey.”
“It’s a joke, Mom. It’s art because of the context; get it?”
“They want $4,000 for this. It would cost less to go to Pennsylvania Dutch country and buy originals,” the mom said, shaking her head. Behind her, Charles Ray leaned over to a woman in a suede jacket, black leather pants, and boots. Then he walked away.
“He had to go to the bathroom,” the woman said, watching over the tub. “He needed somebody to keep an eye on this, I guess.” She was already looking for him over the heads of the crowd. “I wish he’d hurry,” she said, nervous. “I don’t have the constitution for this. It’s like having a dog.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.