REVIEW | Charles Ray: Sculpture 1997 – 2014

Charles Ray: Sculpture 1997 – 2014

Art Institute of Chicago

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”- John Lennon

For artist Charles Ray, it all comes down to perspective: of viewing or of being viewed; and, it is worth both looking forward, from creation through the process of aging, as well as looking back, by creating visual replications of impacts: boyhood, car wrecks, birth; and, most importantly, encounters with others. At our core, it is in our very ability to see, to truly see, that allows us to fully connect with each other. And in a romantic, and often wryly witty, way – Ray’s keen ability to observe and depict his often deadpan social observations of others that remind us of the ridiculous we find in ourselves. By magnifying this absurdity in beautiful, lifelike, metal and fiberglass figures, and representing them in equal material and form – his works can, and do, become all about the who and the why (something Ray has been doing since the early 1980s). This exhibition, with wide open spaces, high and receding ceilings, and luxurious amounts of space between Ray’s monolithic works, references decades of American popular culture and reaches as far back as Antiquity. It conveys Ray’s substantial depth and skill to weave such a complex matrix of conceptual allusionary and allegorical themes from boyhood and self- portraiture to sleep and ghosts to even the cycle of life. As a whole and individually, the work of Charles Ray is simply extraordinary.

Shoe Tie, a gorgeously polished kneeling self-portrait, is an excellent example of Ray’s dalliance into questions of perception. According to the exhibit materials, Ray, an avid walker, headed out one early morning and while retying his shoe on the trail in the dark was struck by a particular esoteric notion: “I speculated that if a ghost were to tie his shoe, he wouldn’t need to have a shoe. I don’t believe in ghosts, but the logic of the thoughts stayed with me. Eventually I saw this gesture as a sculpture.” Although a challenging and (on some level) illogical path to follow from concept to construction, but the final work is quite fantastic. It is not so much about the figure, but rather the pose that is the subject here – Ray pantomimes the action without clothes or laces. Pushing me to alter my stance to be able to fully engage with the work, I find myself in an equal pose alongside the artist questioning where the ghost might fit in-between us or if it exists at all. I must admit, it's a nice surprise to find humor in work so seriously considered and executed – not an easy feat.

It is interesting that for an artist who works in an almost antithetically accidental fashion that a trilogy he never intended would become some of his most celebrated and recognizable works. The New Beetle, Boy with Frog, and School Play, dive headfirst into the theme of childhood – something that is recurring throughout Ray’s work. The New Beetle, the first figurative sculpture for which Ray did not use any type of template (such as a body mold) as a basis for constructing the work, is the sleek portrait of a six-year old boy playing intently with a toy car. His slim build, smooth, nude, and stark white, is outstretched in almost all directions, but (and importantly) he is leaning into and gazing upon the arm and the car it pushes. From the tips of his toes to the top of his head, Ray has posed the child in such a way that all points lead towards and extend beyond the “new beetle.” To be able to view the boy’s face, I am forced to crouch down on the floor – and this is the entire point. And I realize it while I am uncomfortably on my knees trying to look into the child’s face. Again, Ray, has seduced me with his technical and aesthetic prowess; but here, he lures me in with the innocence and reverie of play only found in children.

Working with same model, the son of a family friend of the artist, Ray traces his development from boyhood to adolescence. Boy with Frog, now nine years old, is overwhelming at over eight feet in height – he dominates the space and dwarfs me as I circle close and retreat back to take the work in in its entirety (again, thanks to considered presentation with lots of breathing room this is possible). Contrary to the previous work, I now must stretch my gaze and my tippy-toes to fully engage with the work; and even then I still cannot take it all in. To compensate, I believe, Ray masterfully plays with the levels of surface detail. While standing in one position, because of the careful undulations in the surface qualities, I am able to make distinctions and new perceptions merely by adjusting my gaze. The frog, crisp and hyper-realistic, is starkly distinct in comparison to the soft focus of the boy. The point of intrigue is the haphazard way he holds the frog so precariously by one leg and the slight look of ill-will across his brow: this unknown intention is both the crux and mystery of this larger-than-life work.

The final sculpture of the trilogy is School Play, with the boy now aged twelve – an often pivotal age marking the beginning of adolescence and the end of childhood (another common theme in Ray’s work), perhaps it is a fortunate accident that he is presented in polished stainless steel in contrast to his younger depictions. Wearing a homemade costume easily referenced from my own childhood theatrical productions – a toga conjured from a sheet wrapped tightly around his body and draped over his shoulder and t-shirt while sandals are crafted from plastic sport flip-flops into something believable. This work, more than any other, self-consciously and humorously points to Ray’s interest in sources from classical antiquity: an interesting distinction given the placeholder in time this work intends to mark, the subtle turn towards manhood. Stoic and quiet, the work lacks the movement of the other members of the trilogy; but at the same time feels far more noble.

Unexpectedly, some of my favorite pieces were a small collection of three, delicate, porcelain and steel works: Chicken, Hand Holding Egg, and Handheld Bird (shown together for the first time). I’ve always had an artistic fascination with eggs – they are a loaded object, full of conjecture and meaning in a multitude of directions – and Ray is no different, having on more than one occasion explored the form and meaning himself. Rumor is that he once set up an incubator in his studio to study the stages before and after hatching. Chicken (pictured left), the strongest of the three, is a true-to-life egg with an untrue-to-life round opening to glimpse the hatchling to be inside the shell. This small investigation into the mysterious and magnificent processes of birth, life, and development easily complement Ray’s figural works, but the cradling form of the eggs and the delicacy of the porcelain add a lovely layer of preciousness.

As I was exiting, I came upon the final work of the exhibition, Huck and Jim, in what felt like a haphazard and confined location (completely opposite of the cavernous rooms I had just left). Turns out, this was the most controversial work of them all: it was commissioned for an outdoor plaza at the Whitney at their new location in downtown New York City and then was politely declined as inappropriate and too provocative for such a public space (cue heavy sigh, I can’t even pull at this thread). Inspired by the relationship between Huck and Jim, often referred to as the emotional backbone of the novel Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ray describes the text as “It’s our Homer, in a way, and Huck Finn is the American Ulysses…there’s a moment in Chapter Nineteen where Huck and Jim are on the raft at night, and they’re arguing about the stars. Jim says the stars were made, and Huck says no, they were always there. But then Jim says the moon could have laid them, and that sounds plausible to Huck, ‘because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many.’ That was the genesis of the piece.”

It’s a gorgeous work, like all the others, each character portrayed at one hundred and fifty percent of life size and nude (another delicate source of contention though rooted in the text). They tower over me and feel incredibly constricted in the small room they have been placed. And perhaps that was intentional – alluding to the difficult lives each character was fleeing from: one from a tyrannical, alcoholic father and the other escaping slavery, one (bent in half) is concerned with frogs and the stars and the other (standing erect) is staring to an empty space and a stark, blank wall. The same tensions and ambiguities present in the story are depicted here: Jim, the fugitive, enables Huck’s escape from his abusive father, leaving Huck in his debt; yet, Huck wrestles with assisting in Jim’s escape or returning him to slavery. Emancipation is accompanied by the threat of betrayal, tenderness with the opportunity for exploitation. As Ray has said, “I see this as part of the richness and complexity of the sculpture, of desires fulfilled and unfulfilled.” Huck, fleeing the peril of home, and Jim the escaped slave advancing deeper into the South and the territory of legalized slavery, are moving both away from and toward liberty, a paradox at the root of Twain’s story. The frightened promise of freedom – shaped as it is by age, class, gender, geography, race, and the uneasy power relation between Huck and Jim – is, for Ray, “a great American moment.”

As I pondered whether or not this was true, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between a young boy (probably 7 or 8) and his father talking about the piece just to my left. The dad asked his son how he liked the show and if he liked the work; and if so, maybe he would want to come back? The son, earnestly replied, “Dad, I loved it. Now I know what sculpture means.” I’d have to agree; Charles Ray continues to give us great moments.

Charles Ray: Sculpture 1997 – 2014, the first major exhibition devoted to celebrated Chicago-born, Los Angeles–based sculptor Charles Ray since a midcareer retrospective in 1998, was on view through October 4th on the 2nd Floor of the Modern Wing. Missed the show? For more, visit:

For more information about the artist, visit:

Images (from top to bottom): Boy with Frog (detail), 2009, stainless steel and paint, collection of The Philadelphia Museum of Art (promised gift of Keith and Katherine Sachs); Shoe Tie, 2012, solid stainless steel, private collection; The New Beetle, 2006, stainless steel and paint, courtesy of Glenstone; Boy with Frog, 2009, stainless steel and paint, collection of The Philadelphia Museum of Art (promised gift of Keith and Katherine Sachs); School Play (detail), 2014, solid stainless steel, collection of the artist; Chicken, 2007, porcelain, stainless steel and paint, courtesy of Glenstone; Huck and Jim, 2014, painted glass-reinforced plastic, courtesy of the Artist and Matthew Marks Gallery; Hand Holding Egg, 2007, porcelain, collection of Anne Dias Griffin

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