Charles Ray & Postmodern Art: A Retrospective

A stylized image of the artist Charles Ray, his arms folded in a red shirt.

Compared to other artists of a similar age, Charles Ray has made very few pieces—only a single sculpture every two years or so. It used to be that no one talked about him. Now everybody does. He’s the guy you mention to your hipster friends. Jeff Koons? Pfft. I’m over it. Charles Ray is much cooler.

Don’t know him? He’s the one who started all that controversy with his statue of Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim. MoMA didn’t want it standing in their courtyard because they felt it might frighten parents and families. Both Jim and Huck are naked. The older man reaches out, seemingly to caress the boy’s shoulder. It’s a psychologically charged moment. Ray is plunging headfirst into a sweaty world of race and homoeroticism.

Charles Ray's sculpture of Huckleberry Finn and Jim from Mark Twain's novel.
Charles Ray, Huck and Jim, 2014

Charles Ray began making a name for himself during the nineties. Neo-Geo was a phrase that got thrown around a lot back then. Not a genre, so to speak, but a catch-all for the kind of postmodern art that was le dernier cri in the big apple. In the halcyon days of MTV and Artforum, being a contemporary artist was a lot like being a rock star. In fact, painters and sculptors chummed around with rock stars all the time. Sometimes the artists even behaved like rock stars and the rock stars commonly mistook themselves for artists (take Tracey Emin and David Bowie, for example). The unspoken rules of postmodernism were as follows: whatever sticks, works. No pussyfooting around the last fifty years of modern art theory, gingerly kissing eggshells. As long as it felt fresh, and surprising, it was valid.

Of course, there were a lot of gimmick acts, and even the best of them like Koons, Bickerton, Kelley, etc. were fairly creatively narrow-minded. None of them were good craftsmen. But they didn’t need to be, because their work wasn’t really about good craftsmanship. I suppose this was a confusing period. How do you square neo-expressionism with minimalism? Hippy punk with Yuppie pop? How do you incorporate post structuralism into an anti-form formalism? Neo-Geo said: fuck it, let’s just see what we can get away with. There’s something admirable about that, I suppose.

A sculpture by Jeff Koons titled "Inflatable Flower (Tall Yellow") which depicts a green and yellow flower with green leaves.
Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flower (Tall Yellow), 1979

But Los Angeles artist Charles Ray was never a schmoozer or a fast talker like a lot of the other Neo-Geo geeks from New York. In fact, when you watch videos of his lectures he comes across as a rather traditionally actorish and self-embarrassed connoisseur. He gushes about pictures of ancient Greek statues and quotes Pliny. Very sweet. Adorable, even, like Diderot rhapsodizing over Greuze. There are grand self-pronouncements. All of the theorizing is about materials and the ‘process’ of those materials. Watching one of his videos I found myself recognizing tropes from the Black Mountain handbook. ‘It’s not about the individual sculptures’, he squeaks. ‘It’s actually about the room. What Donald Judd taught us is that you can’t really have any more than three works in a room at the same time.’

An installation by Donald Judd depicting red square shapes, stripes and other patterns.
Donald Judd installation

For Charles Ray, minimalism is a motif, rather than a modus operandi. Or rather, he started off as a traditional minimalist in the sixties but something happened along the way. Maybe it was the influence of arch-formalist Bruce Nauman or the concrete poet Vito Acconci, but Ray began incorporating his own body into his sculptures, often as a device like a wedge or a lever. He smuggled himself into furniture and walls. The candelabras from Belle et la Bete. The voyeur sewing himself into Poe’s chaise lounge. This mix of me-ism and minimalism, of self-portrait and self-denial, would become the main descriptor of Ray’s sculptural output.

A Charles Ray sculpture called "Steel and Human Body", from 1982, depicting a man's arm and torso inside a box with a metallic saw.
Charles Ray, Steel and Human Body, 1982

The ‘return’ of the figure in contemporary sculpture was a matter of course. Similar artists such as Koons and Robert Gober had begun a sort of half-hearted figurative revival project that sought to restore the tradition of Degas and Rodin but with a layer of arch-ironical distance. Duchamp’s 1920s method of electing found objects as ready-mades became a fortiori. Koons would take home appliances and flea market kitsch and make them look like helium Brancusis. Gober made sculptures of disembodied limbs scattered to the wind. It was a revival that whiffed of the grave. The cold anaesthetic smell of a doggy vasectomy clinic. The message seemed to be that it was ok to represent the human body, but what the human body itself represented was radically in doubt. Like the Koons sculpture of the teddy bear reprimanding a policeman with a warning, it was both cute, familiar, and strangely terrifying.

Robert Gober's sculpture of a leg from the shin down, with blakc pants, gray socks, and a brown shoe.
Robert Gober, Untitled Leg, 1989-90
A sculpture from Jeff Koons depicting a brown bear and a policeman looking up at it.
Jeff Koons, Bear and Policeman, 1988

Much of the Neo-Geo nineties pack were raised on modernist abstract formalism, which is to say, the critical works of Michael Fried, Clement Greenberg and Donald Judd. Many of them, including Ray, continue to give lip-service to this kind of old-school stuff about form over content. Their rhetoric is sober. They take care to emphasize the engineering, process and installation of the works over any connivances of ideology or psychology. But this may in fact be a rhetorical strategy- a distraction from the elephant in the room. After all, is there anything Charles Ray or Jeff Koons has done that hasn’t already been anticipated by Dali or Magritte? Postmodernism’s tendency towards neo-surrealism can, at its worst, devolve into the production of cheap philosophical paradoxes.

Salvador Dali's art-object of a black rotary phone and an orange-red lobster for the receiver.
Salvador Dali, Lobster Telephone 1936

Now, I’m no sculptor, so I can’t easily parse the vernacular of sculptural formalism—it’s just not something I’m used to to verbalising. Also, everything gets politicised. Even a dinky little word like formalism is loaded with historical meaning so one can get carried away by a consistent demand to elucidate nuance. I’m trying to keep all my bases covered.

But in a nutshell, there simply haven’t been as many great sculptors as painters. It’s a historically neglected technical category and so the historical memory of sculpture, at least from a bog-standard western perspective, is fairly narrow. Perhaps we know about Rodin. But he seems very uncool to us because he’s a stereotypical bearded old man who worked in a studio making nudes. Maybe we know about Brancusi. Maybe not. The point is that in all of human history there have probably only been two major points when there was a wide-scale cultural investigation into the critical possibility for the creative conditions of a work of sculpture. One was during the Renaissance and the cult of ‘paragone‘. The other was during the sixties and seventies with the birth of minimalism and conceptualism.

Charles Ray's installation of a green tractor built from resin.
A Charles Ray installation.

The main takeaway of the sixties was that sculpture had to involve an idea of the audience’s movement. Sculpture you could walk around. Sculpture you could walk into and through. Sculpture that enveloped the body like architecture rather than reproducing the architecture of the body. Commercial gallery spaces became like white cubes: blank pieces of paper that blurred the boundary of the art and its location. Minimalism did everything it could to draw attention to the physical space, the somatics of installation. Much of this rhetoric is still present in Ray’s work. ‘I want the sculpture to feel embedded in the space’, he says. ‘To belong to it.’

A sepia photograph of Anthony Caro's deck installation.
Anthony Caro, Cool Deck, 1971 in Artforum

This is something Ray harps on about constantly. If the sculpture doesn’t make you want to walk around it, then apparently it’s not sculpture. Or at least, not good sculpture. And if you want a perfect example of the type of abstract sculpture that was really popping off back in the heyday of formalism look no further than Charles Ray’s personal hero, Anthony Caro. Some of Caro’s best works from the sixties and seventies are his welded kinaesthetic sculptures like Cool Deck and Early One Morning, which consciously set out to use the floor as another sculptural element rather than as a mere gravitational base or ground. Ray’s work is similarly preoccupied by a highly structured compositional relationship to real and imagined space. But this relationship is stressed in more conceptually metaphorical orders.

A Charles Ray sculpture of an oversized female mannequin wearing a red dress.
Charles Ray, Fall ’91, 1991

For instance, two of my favourite sculptures by Ray, his Firetruck and Fall ’91, are scaled-up replicas of a mannequin and a toy truck, respectively. Fall 91 is a sculpture of a mid-level executive type in a sharp red suit. She looks normal but as you get closer you realize she is actually eight feet tall. From a distance, Firetruck looks like a real fire truck until you get close enough to realize it’s a giant replica of a toy parked on the sidewalk outside the museum on Madison Avenue. ‘I’m not interested in the uncanny’, says Ray. ‘I don’t want my things riding into the room on a Freudian surfboard.’

An outdoors installation from Ray Charles of a red firetruck next to pedestrians and yellow taxi cabs.
Charles Ray, Firetruck, 1993.

But that’s bullshit. There’s always a psychological charge to Charles Ray’s works. For all his rhetoric about materials and form, he’s best known for concocting a familiar mixture of psychology, politics and good old-fashioned alienation. Think Cady Noland or Damien Hirst. The smuggling of anxious and confessional content into the minimalist schema is a signature of Neo-Geo postmodernism. It’s meant to be an ironic combination, although perhaps it’s a combination that lends itself too easily to narratives of trauma, child abuse and psychoanalysis. Mike Kelley had exactly this problem with his works made from plush toys. ‘It’s about capitalism, not paedophilia’, he fumed. Roll on snare drum.

A Mike Kelley installation of dog figurines on a red track.
Mike Kelley, Arena #10 (Dogs), 1990
Cady Noland's installation of a mirror with handcuffs and a red gun.
Cady Noland, The Mirror Device, 1987
Damien Hirst's "The Acquired Inability to Escape" installation, which features a glass box with metal frames, and an office cubicle with a desk and chair inside of it.
Damien Hirst, The Acquired Inability to Escape, 1991

Which brings us back to Ray’s sculpture of Huck and Jim. Everyone says it’s creepy and weird. But Ray insists on its being a simple representation of an episode from the book, where both characters collect frogspawn together on the Mississippi River. Sure thing, Charles, I’m sure you had no idea this sculpture would upset the squares. Yet despite myself, I can’t help but feel that there’s something rather feeble about this sculpture. A rare misfire in a career of otherwise gutsy and sophisticated works. The figures themselves are frumpy, and the forms rely too much on the hiatus between Jim’s hand and the boy’s back.

An Edgar Degas sculpture of a young dancer with her foot out in front.
Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1880-1

Let’s look at some great sculpture from the past very quickly. Here’s one of Edgar Degas’s ballerinas. Her posture is incredible. It’s rare to see a bronze with such convincing lightness and balance. The sense of weight on her legs, her splay-footed stepping forward and craning back. The contortion combined with the sense of naturalistic ease is pure sculptural harmony. Of course, it’s also easy fodder for the sympathies of a searching conscience—the little ballerina, sticking out her chin, and attempting to ignore the ache of practice hours. But she, and our imagined sympathy for her, is not the subject. The subject is the work’s location, and our locating ourselves in front of it. Everywhere we walk we see some nuance, some subtlety. Look! It’s Degas! A thumbprint. The hidden trajectory of a limb. Realism and its hiatus. Plastic stress. Dramatic tension.

A sculpture by Henri Matisse featuring two distorted figures in an embrace.
Henri Matisse, La Serpentine, 1909

Compare it to a very small bronze by Matisse called La Serpentine. Another wonderful contortion of the body but this time with an even more lumpen materiality. How curious that Matisse’s bronzes can appear more clay-like than actual clay. The whole thing is on the move, appearing to bend and fall apart before our eyes. The tactility of the forms, our sense of Matisse’s hands in and around them—this clenching and releasing is crucial to the figure’s erotic charge, as if space itself is sculpting the object.

A sculpture by Charles Ray featuring a man in a glass bottle on top of a white column.
Charles Ray, Puzzle Bottle, 1995

But how do these sculptural themes fit into Charles Ray’s practice? Not without some strain or difficulty, that’s for sure. After all, Ray often employs technicians and craftsmen to make his sculptures, so we don’t always get the usual signifiers that happen in and on the surface. But that doesn’t mean that Ray’s work is against craft. It just means we have to look elsewhere for the details. For example, in his sculpture Puzzle Bottle, instead of the artist’s thumbprint, we get a miniature of the artist himself. He’s trapped behind the glass like one of those novelty ship-in-a-bottle gewgaws. According to Ray, this sculpture began as an idea about staging the ‘negative space’ within a bottle as a kind of sculptural space. Initially he wanted to manufacture a life-sized ship in a massively oversized bottle but soon realised the facilities to manufacture a bottle of such proportions didn’t exist. So instead he simply reversed the theme of spatial dislocation and made a very small bottle with a very small self-portrait at the centre. Once more, we have to move closer to get the full effect. ‘Look’, we say, ‘it’s Ray! What’s he doing in there?’

Charles Ray's "Puzzle Bottle" sculpture, in detail, where a man in blue denim jeans, brown shoes, a green shirt, and glasses is visible.
Charles Ray, Puzzle Bottle, 1995 (detail)

With Ray’s work you’ll notice very often the surface is literally repulsive. It’s shiny, laminated and smooth. It’s an alien smoothness, the smoothness of the world of commodities. But it’s also the smoothness of antiquity – of a frieze in a Grecian architrave. There’s something sort of undead about Ray’s work that verges on the passive aggressive. Maybe this is what rubs people the wrong way. One Financial Times article referred to Ray’s work as having the ‘creepily bland presence of a Ken Doll’.  It’s really a challenge to look past the superficial coldness, the rebarbative formal ‘distance’ that he’s so expert at producing. He only shows us what he wants to show us, and it’s not much. You could compare it to the director Robert Bresson who was always hiring non-actors for characters in his films, or the German techno-pioneers, Kraftwerk, designing robot mannequins of themselves to perform live music. In these instances, distance is in fact a crucial element for preserving the work’s most humane aspects. With Bresson, the actor always had to seem slightly unworthy of the lines he was reading. In Charles Ray’s case, the sculpture deliberately cuts across our traditional notions of play and vibrancy. We are pressed to question how sculptural production affects the meaning of the work and highlight the unseen processes inherent in the artist’s methods.

An image of Kraftwerk's "Roboter" dummies, white-skinned mannequins wearing red shirts with black ties.
Kraftwerk’s ‘Roboter’ dummy band
A sculpture by Charles Ray of a boy in blue overalls, white t-shirt, high white socks and black shoes.
Charles Ray, Boy, 1992

With Ray, the processes for a sculptures conception and labour are hidden from view. But this absence is then thematized in the work. In the case of Tractor from 2005 we get a sculpture which looks like a ready-made spray-painted silver. But it’s actually a complete simulacrum of a real tractor Ray found in the San Fernando Valley, sculpted in resin.

Charles Ray's sculpture of a military, almost steampunk-style metallic tractor with no color other than aluminum.
Charles Ray, Tractor, 2005

In order to sculpt the entire vehicle inside and out, Ray had the original completely disassembled. Studio assistants then modelled each part in clay, creating representations that retain evidence of their maker’s hands. After moulds were taken, these elements were then cast in aluminum and reassembled to make a complete, topological replica. So even the tractor’s corroded engine has been reproduced down to its most intricate detail but by dint of exactitude this detail is hidden from the viewer within a spatial core. It’s like an exercise in masochism: the resultant effect being of a sort of leaden maquette, a Giacometti by way of Woody Allen. ‘I think of this sculpture as a tractor in heaven’, says Charles Ray.

Charles Ray's gray-white sculpture of a destroyed Pontiac car.
Charles Ray, Unpainted Sculpture, 1997

Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture is a Pontiac in purgatory. A fatal car-crash skillfully reproduced in resin and painted matte grey. Calling it Unpainted Sculpture is funny because the primer looks like the grey of an unpainted Airfix model. Yet the title emphasises the works sculptural identity whilst posing it as an open question. Is ‘unpainted’ the same as unfinished? Is the ‘unfinished’ grey an agent of alienation or unification? It’s almost as if the object of the car is in self-denial or self-withdrawal. Something is withheld from us.

Claes Oldenburg's "Ghost Drum" sculpture, featuring empty or seemingly-empty drum bags.
Claes Oldenburg, Ghost Drum Set, 1972

Here, you can also really see the vestigial influence of Cleas Oldenburg in Ray’s work, particularly of the soft fabric sculptures such as Ghost Telephone or Ghost Medicine Cabinet or Ghost Drum Set. The wrecked car, by being drained of colour, reflection and transparency becomes almost like an abstract structure or a distended biomorphic figure. Is this what happens to objects when we’re not there to observe them? What sort of control does our being present exert over the objects we sense and feel and perceive?

As is typical with PoMo, it’s difficult to separate satire from earnestness and philosophy from wit. There’s obviously a kind of second-order nature to this sort of thing, where we’re seeing artists play around with pre-established codes and conventions, ripping them up and sticking them back together. Postmodernism is all about this, so we shouldn’t act too surprised to see people blithely poking holes in ideas of authenticity. For better or worse, everything being produced today shares some kind of DNA with the internet meme and the club remix. Surplus and scarcity.

I don’t have any grand points or theories to double-down on or abandon. There’s really nothing overly mysterious about what I’m describing. Maybe it seems strange if you’re not accustomed to contemporary art. But Charles Ray isn’t doing anything revolutionary or radical if you know the work of Francis Picabia or Man Ray or Duchamp and I don’t really take the rhetoric about a figurative revival too seriously. His sculptures are creative and witty, and I admire his refusal to break character, but often I find the ‘heroic’ pose of 19th master-sculptor-genius personally obnoxious. Perhaps as his star ascends, Ray’s style of postmodern academicism will be a consolidating force, rather than just another ‘name’ or market placeholder. But at the end of the day, it’s not necessary for something to be radical or ‘important’ in order to be good art. In this sense, Ray is perhaps our Bouguereau or Fragonard. He’ll do, for now at least.

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