Artists Retrospective

Raw Metal, Vulnerable Humans: Charles Ray on His Poetic Sculptures, in 1987

Charles Ray, Sleeping Woman, 2012, solid stainless steel. ©THE ARTIST/COURTESY MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Charles Ray, Sleeping Woman, 2012, solid stainless steel.


Charles Ray is known for his eerily naturalistic sculptures of cars, plants, and humans, 19 of which are currently on view in “Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014,” at the Art Institute of Chicago. In honor of that show, we turn back to December 1987, when Peter Clothier visited Ray’s studio when the artist was making work that was more in the vein of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. At this time, Ray was still an emerging artist who was just beginning to get attention for his surreal, sometimes uncomfortable work. The work that Clothier described—Minimalist forms that have organic qualities—has affinities with Ray’s current work, which is usually made using industrial materials. Clothier’s description of his visit to Ray’s Los Angeles studio follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Charles Ray: Edgy, Provocative Presences”
By Peter Clothier

The single narrow black line looks at first sight like a glossy plastic cord, passing cleanly through floor and ceiling of the converted garage Charles Ray uses for a studio. Light glints off its surface as the visitor moves around it. Clean, taut, and polished, spare in its use of materials and its expressive content, the piece looks like a classic Minimalist statement.

At first.

“Don’t touch,” the artist warns. “It’s ink.”

Ink? Look closely, and you’ll think you detect the movement of the liquid’s dead fall, through an aperture in the ceiling and another in the floor. You’ll notice the barely perceptible tapering effect at the closest point to the ground. In silence, you’ll almost hear it.

Next thing, you realize how radically the terms have shifted from the moment when you saw the work as an object, now that you recognize it for what it is. The formal elegance, the optical pleasure of the interplay between the artwork and its ambient space—these have been complicated and enormously enriched by a whole new set of references: trompe-l’oeil realism, kineticism, performance . . . . The viewer steps much more firmly into the esthetic arena, now that the work has raised the issue of his perception to it, mocking his a priori assumptions with gentle humor and changing, before his eyes, from a passive object into an edgy, provocative presence.

Charles Ray, Huck and Jim, 2014, fiberglass. ©THE ARTIST

Charles Ray, Huck and Jim, 2014, fiberglass.


For an artist who turns out work of this maturity, Ray is remarkably little known, even in Los Angeles, where he heads the sculpture department at UCLA. Yet, at 35, he has produced an extraordinary variety of work, with an uncommon degree of consistency in the issues it addresses. His persistence was learned, perhaps, through the iron discipline of the Catholic military high school he attended in the Midwest. “Its motto,” he recalls with a wry grin, “was ‘Believe in God and Fight for Him.’ Obviously it wasn’t a country club.”

Along with fostering what he describes with characteristic understatement as “a level of anxiety,” the school encouraged his drawing and his growing interest in art. Emerging into the radical ferment of the early ’70s, Ray moved on to the University of Iowa (“the right place at the right time”), where teaching was strong in the formalist tradition. As an undergraduate he was already making sophisticated three-dimensional works involving balance and tension, and he found great satisfaction, he recalls today, in “sliding pieces of metal around until they locked right into the right structure. I loved the physicality of it,” he adds. “And something in the simplicity of the work made sense to me.”

As his artistic sensibility developed, however, he rejected the path that “seemed to be moving toward second-generation di Suvero or Serra,” and began to introduce performance elements into the mix. “I wanted to retain the anxiety of the structures,” he explains. “Part of the thrill was in the actual making, when they’d topple or fall. It became very easy to insert my body, because it had been there all along.” But in bringing his body into play, he wanted to use it “not as a field to act on, as people like Oppenheim and Acconci were doing, but as a sculptural element.” Thus, in an untitled performance series completed in 1974, his body served as a simple structural intermediary, hooked between a diagonally placed plank and a vertical wall.

The documentation suggests excruciating discomfort. Was that part of the idea? “At first I denied the empathetic element,” Ray admits. “But in retrospect, these pieces have a kind of pathos—almost like a series of Goya prints—and they’re also funny.” It was this empathetic element, perhaps, that he lost sight of during a difficult period of three years between studying sculpture in graduate school in Kentucky and his subsequent migration to California. Still searching for something beyond formalism, yet wanting to return to the physicality of the made object, he toyed with what he calls “formalist imagery.” The results, reminiscent of Joel Shapiro’s sculptures, “hung around the studio like big pieces of candy. I became very depressed about it all.”

The move to California brought a major breakthrough, satisfying both Ray’s need for structural integrity and his expressive impulse. Inventing a series of chillingly Kafkaesque abstractions of household furniture—grim, Spartan, and square-jointed—Ray introduced the naked human figure (his own and others’) into the environment, interlocking it structurally with the grids by steel beams and heavy casklike components that enclosed the head and imprisoned the figure in a static tableau. “I wanted them to be seen as sculptures rather than performance pieces,” Ray said.

Charles Ray, School Play, 2014, stainless steel. ©THE ARTIST

Charles Ray, School Play, 2014, stainless steel.


Developing the idea further, he used body paint to objectify discrete parts of the body, dissociating them from each other to reinforce the unsettling image of physical entrapment and acute mental and emotional alienation. In these works, the stark contrast between raw metal and vulnerable human nudity increased the tension and brought viewer empathy to a radically painful pitch.

Ray’s recent work is tending toward gentler and more subtle approaches, his direction determined by a practical and playful experimentation with materials and ideas. “My formal thinking,” he says, “is what opens up the context.” Recovering objects from the physical world beyond the studio, he likes to “let things hang around, waiting to see how they work.” Currently hanging around the studio, at a glance, are: a Squirt welder with a randomized direction control box, operating a single wire whose two ends probe through the neighboring wall like a pair of exploring antennae; a marble fireplace from San Simeone (Ray has been drilling it with holes for firecrackers, to see what happens when they explode); the mock-up of a pink marble box that he may fill to the brim with Pepto-Bismol.

“My decisions are as much in rejection as acceptance,” he says, surveying a shop as cluttered as a mad scientist’s lab. “I look for whatever turns out to have the resonance I’m looking for.” After “a year and a half of banging around the studio,” he found the image for a deep-rooted preoccupation with his brother’s premature death from lymphoma. Viral Research (1986) comprises a table, set with vessels of all sizes, interconnected by a spaghetti of glass tubes. The liquid black dye that fills the tubes rises to the same level in each of the vessels—a quietly eloquent image of the terrifying impartiality of viral infection, particularly poignant in a society threatened by AIDS.

Ray’s peculiar sense of art as the precarious formal control and manipulation of murky, threatening energies has found its fullest and simplest expression to date in a perfect, glossy, three-foot black cube that sits on the gallery floor (most recently last spring at Burnett Miller in L.A.) for all the world like an impenetrable John McCracken box. “There’s a real neurotic thing happening,” says Ray”—the urge to touch it combined with the knowledge that you can’t.” It defies touch, not simply because it is an artwork, but also because it is filled with 200 gallons of printer’s ink. It is a powerful image of containment that appeals simply and wittily, both the esthete’s eye and to a public thirsty for an art that speaks directly to the complex fullness of the human experience.

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