Monuments to absence: Gregory Gilbert on a new book about Charles Ray

The artist's excessive emphasis on production eclipses everything else


In the late 1990s, the work of the American sculptor Charles Ray undertook a shift. His uncanny mannequins, best exemplified by pieces like Fall ’91 (1992), an oversized synthetic figure, gave way to a more traditional style rooted in classical prototypes. Many of these later works evince an increased interest in social and literary narratives, as well as experimentation with diverse materials and complex methods of fabrication: 3-D scanning, cast aluminum, fiberglass and machine-milled stainless steel. Already in Ray’s earliest post-Minimal objects and performative installations from the 1970s, such as Plank Piece (1973), he challenged Minimalism’s repression of figurative content. The literal and often absurd presence of the body in these works forced the awareness that no sculpture—no matter how avowedly purist and abstract—is devoid of human agency and meaning.

Yet while Ray focuses on human form in his recent works in provocative and compelling ways, it often lacks an affective human presence, giving these objects an unsettling aura. The familiar figurative imagery, classical tropes and the spectacularised appeal of glistening high-tech materials draws us to his sculpture while alienating us with its hollowness. This is the real nature of his shift.

In a catalogue essay for Ray’s recent exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Art Institute of Chicago, which focused on this change in his work, the art historian Michael Fried insists that the later figurative sculptures command the absorptive attention of the viewer. Fried sees their nuanced, stylised forms as having an inwardly focused, independent state of being. This quality is reinforced thematically through narratives of sleep in works like Sleeping Woman (2012) and Mime (2014), or in the young boy’s concentrated play with a toy car in New Beetle (2006).

Yet it is possible to argue the opposite effect. The glossy, technical finishes and the mute deadpan expressions of Ray’s figures encourage a quick, detached perception—the reverse of absorption. This is especially true of Young Man (2012) or Sleeping Woman, which are crafted n stainless steel, a ubiquitous material in contemporary urban space that we register in automatic ways. Pieces like Shoe Tie (2012) have been buffed to a glossy sheen that gives the feeling of an elusive liquid surface, which resists a firm visual grasp. Similarly, the metallic luster of Mime has a flat materiality that is oddly akin to digital imagery, which can be quickly consumed and does not invite sustained attention. It is as if reflection itself is made absent.

Although his sculptures are rarely compared to the works of Jeff Koons, some of Ray’s pieces like Future Fragment on a Solid Base (2011) or Light from the Left (2007) flirt with decorative kitsch, which itself is always fleeting. Their painstaking fabrication and enlarged scale seems to confer a startling sense of gravitas to debased commercial imagery. In contrast to these aggrandized whimsical pieces, other works like Unpainted Sculpture (1997), Sleeping Woman (2012) and Huck Finn (2014) feature themes of fatal car accidents, homelessness and racially charged tableaux. These are some of the artists more enigmatic and intriguing sculptures, presenting provocative subjects in a language of cool detachment. This gives the pieces an air of narrative indeterminacy and renders their content strangely absent, which itself may be an oblique form of social commentary. While such issues are largely ignored in the catalogue essays and reviews of the exhibition, the disjunction between thematic and formal properties warrants scrutiny.

One of the most provocative pieces is Sleeping Woman, a three-ton reclining figure chiseled from stainless steel. The sculpture is based on Ray’s chance encounter in downtown Santa Monica with a homeless woman, whom he repeatedly photographed as she slept. The meticulous treatment and ponderous form of the figure suggest an effort to memorialise his experience. Her thin protective layer of clothing and her attempt to claim a temporary perch gives her a sense of vulnerability that is somewhat belied by her inward calm, as if she is impervious to the milling social world around her. Our neural perception of urban space often lacks an emphatic recognition of the homeless. With its glossy, machined form, Ray’s sculpture aestheticises and objectifies the woman’s figure and somehow replicates the troubling erasure of identity associated with the homeless.

Provocation is also part of Ray’s proposed public sculpture Huck and Jim, which was inspired by Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was originally commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York for its new building in lower Manhattan, but was eventually rejected. The figures are nude, a reference to the homo-social idyll of Huck and Jim rafting and skinny-dipping in the Mississippi River. The controversy of not installing the work at the Whitney focused on the sensitive and racially-charged male nudity, specifically the close proximity of a naked African-American man and white teenager.

A pivotal episode in the novel is Huck’s decision to stand by his unlawful action to assist Jim’s freedom from slavery, which Ray regards as a “great American moment” that still means something today.” In keeping with the literary source, Ray monumentalizes the disenfranchised black male and poor white youth. The planned installation at the Whitney would have asserted their presence in an entitled cultural space—an incongruous setting for such marginalised figures. Social marginality—invisibility—is reinforced by the colorless matte finish and the anonymous, vacant character of the figures. They are drained of narrative content even as narrative content is evoked.

An equally compelling and enigmatic work is Unpainted Sculpture, a fiberglass replica of an automobile wrecked in a fatal car crash. Ray has explained that his motivation for the piece was to find an object haunted by death. The sculpture is on one level a wry homage to the tradition of the readymade and also to the automotive assemblages of Edward Kienholz and John Chamberlain. It is also evocative of Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series.

But it is erasure that is most evident in the sculpture. The meticulous production of the work (the original car was taken apart and carefully recreated) and the application of matte grey paint neutralizes content through dispassionate reproduction. Here is a broader comment on our fascination with commercial and technological image production, which always eclipses the subject. Ray’s original aim—to meticulously duplicate every single aspect of the wrecked car—did not come completely to fruition. The assembly required eliminating and altering certain parts in order to fabricate the final work. The sculpture, which is therefore both a meticulous copy and an improvised form, has a circulatory logic. Any residual human history or content associated with the car is rendered absent in relation to the precise technological production.

In his essay for the catalogue, the art historian Richard Neer notes that the ritual purpose of ancient sculpture was to serve as an emblematic devotional marker, to represent the absence of a god or a deceased individual. Ray’s pieces update this traditional function. The excessive time and technical labour involved in fashioning his work, as well as its visual allure, is at odds with its seeming lack of meaningful social presence and values—as if an excess of production eclipses everything else.

• Gregory Gilbert is Professor and director of the art history programme at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.

Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997-2014

Michael Fried, Richard Neer, et al.

Hatje Cantz, 160 pp.