By Alina Cohen
Sculptor Charles Ray employs varied media—from ink to marble, photography to wood—to depict anything from a car wreck to clothing or a human figure. Indeed, it can be difficult for both newcomers and studied critics to describe just what exactly defines his oeuvre. If anything, it’s always an inventive meditation on sculpture itself.
Ray’s wry poetry extends across the body of work he’s made since the 1970s, when he studied at the University of Iowa (he later attended Rutgers University for graduate school). Born in Chicago in 1953 and now based in Los Angeles, the artist is better known for taking early morning hikes and building his own boats than he is for making appearances at major art world events.
While he’s chosen to live outside the limelight, major institutions still avidly promote his work. The Whitney Museum of American Art has featured him in its biennials five times. A 2015 retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago introduced fresh eyes to his labor-intensive pieces, including an oversized sculpture, Huck and Jim (2014), which depicted the protagonists of Mark Twain’s most famous novel in the nude. At the moment, Matthew Marks Gallery in New York is showing five new works by the artist in “three rooms and the repair annex,” including a massive steel nude and two painted steel sculptures of tiny mechanics.
Ray’s own body has often figured prominently in his practice—he’s photographed and sculpted himself, including most memorably in a 1992 piece, Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley…, which features eight onanistic sculptural approximations of the artist. Ray’s output is small, as it can take years to complete a single work. Some pieces can be relatively simple, like Ink Line (1987), where a steady stream of ink flows from the gallery ceiling onto its floor, daring viewers to reach out and touch it. Others—such as Unpainted Sculpture (1997), a sculpture of a bashed-up four-door sedan—require a wealth of planning and expertise. Here are a few other highlights from the sculptor’s preeminent contribution to contemporary art.
“The interesting thing is the repeating of the blue jeans,” Ray tells Artsy about this early work from his college days: a linear photographic series in which the artist wears different configurations of all the clothes he owns. “I had more shirts than I had pants.” The serial aspect, he says, is particular to the era. According to him, the work’s “documentary nature,” along with the fact that the figures are lined up in a row, gives the piece away as a product of its decade (conceptual photography projects of the time often had a serial nature, as in the work ofRobert Kinmont). Additionally, Ray produced the work at a time when images of young men lining up in a row were common: The draft for the Vietnam War finally ended in 1973, its legacy preserved in pictures of youthful soldiers standing side-by-side in much more formal, mandatory dress.
Throughout college, Ray made sculptures with heavy materials, such as sacks of cement and stone blocks. “My body was always present in the activity of the studio,” he says. “What was important to me, looking back now, was how close at hand my body always was.” He’d lie in his bathtub, considering how his own body itself might become part of one of his pieces. In this diptych, Ray captured performances in which a wooden plank fixed him to the wall, first by the backs of his knees, and then by his midsection. When he was young, he denied empathetic readings of Plank Piece I-II that considered how painful it must have been to pin his body to the wall. He used to tell people that it was much more impersonal, merely “a relationship between a wall, a plank, and a body. I was very dry about it.” Ray is less dogmatic about the work now. Indeed, Plank Piece I-II can read as embodied artistic strife: a creator becoming overwhelmed and dominated by his material.
This sculpture is quite literally what its title implies. Artist Mike Kelley once wrote that the work “seems to conflate minimalist sculpture and the vomitoriums of ancient Roman arenas.” Kelley focused on the rarity of the color pink in contemporary work; in his mind, Ray’s brightly hued sculpture implies a perversity, and an unmasking of the art world’s “masculine orientation.” Ray offers a more prosaic story. “I think one season there was a bad flu around,” he says, simply. “Marble was ubiquitous at the time: in counters, bathrooms, and stalls. Pepto-Bismol is a popular cure for nausea—and the sculpture, that volume of [the medicine], kind of causes nausea.” Is there an irony that something that was supposed to cure nausea would then induce it? According to Ray, if that’s the case, then the piece failed: He wants his sculpture to transcend irony. In all his work, he aims for what he terms “sculpturalness” to surpass any literal reading that would too easily allow a viewer to derive a clear, one-note message from a piece. The meaning, he says, should simply derive from the sculpture itself. “The poetry I’m creating is sculptural rather than verbal,” he explains.