Over the past 30-plus years, Charles Ray has produced successive bodies of sculpture that superficially appear quite different from one another. There have been works performed for the camera that employed the artist’s own body as a sculptural element.There have been conceptual variations on minimalist forms: a line that is a continuous stream of ink flowing from a hole in the ceiling to a hole in the floor; a cube that is a black-painted steel box open at the top and filled to the brim with black ink; and a circle that is a mechanized white disc set flush into a white wall and spin- ning so fast as to appear stationary.There have been outsize and miniaturized mannequins, often modeled after Ray himself, as well as immaculate reconstructions of hatching eggs, rotting trees and wrecked cars, and figurative works that recall Classical sculptures.
As disparate as Ray’s sculptures may appear, they are united by common characteristics and concerns. Chief among the latter is the formal notion of sculptural space—in particular, the space between the object and the viewer where perceptual and cognitive shifts might occur.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Ray’s most recent show at Matthew Marks. Carefully disposed within the large gallery were three unpainted, stainless-steel figures (all 2012): a standing male nude modeled after a sculptor acquaintance; a homeless woman from the neighborhood around Ray’s Los Angeles studio, curled up asleep on a bench; and the artist himself, naked and crouched as if tying an invisible shoe. All reference idealized forms familiar from Greco-Roman sculpture, while at the same time being both personally and culturally specific.
Ten percent over life size, each piece was modeled in clay, put through a 3D scanner, and then machine carved from a solid block of metal. Details have been deliberately softened, and surfaces have been buffed to a dull sheen. As one walks around the works, their reflective, slightly smoothed-out forms morph in the manner of Anthony Caro’s abstract sculptures, of which Ray has long been an outspoken fan.
In Sleeping Woman a long lozenge of reflected light length- ens along the curve of the figure’s back, splays out to follow the folds in her jacket, and then continues on to the curve of her brow. Young Man, conversely, is all flowing vertical shadows, pooling in the middle at front and back. The most remarkable effects are generated by Shoe Tie, which can be read as a shifting collection of abstract light and dark shapes.
The sculptures’ reflectiveness serves another purpose, which is to complicate the boundary between work and surrounding space. Blurred images of architectural details and gallery visitors become part of the piece, while certain elements, such as the sleeping woman’s Nikes, seem to be atomizing as one watches, as if the heavy sculpture (weighing in at three tons) were dis- solving into the very air of the room.
Here, as in the past, an engagement with the viewer’s physical presence trumps any psychological, cultural or personal narrative implied by the work’s imagery, making these variously curled, crouched and standing figures equivalent to, respectively, Ray’s original circle, cube and line. This is not to say that Ray’s images are any less carefully considered than his works’ effects. As with all of his sculpture, much of the power and strangeness of these newest pieces resides in their simultaneous exactitude and inscrutability.
Photo: View of Charles Ray’s exhibition, showing (left to right) Sleeping Woman, Shoe Tie and Young Man, all 2012, stainless steel; at Matthew Marks