The incredible impact of Charles Ray’s sculptures

“Charles Ray: Figure Ground,” at the Metropolitan Museum, is a succinct retrospective of nineteen works from the more than five-decade career of America’s most enthralling contemporary sculptor. Ray is an artistic and philosophical provocateur whose always surprising creations return in spirit, though rarely in appearance, to the sublimity of ancient Greek art. Recent labor-intensive works – often figurative pieces he develops in clay before being machined from single blocks of aluminum or stainless steel, or sculpted from solid cypress by Japanese carpenters under his direction – fascinate and disconcert. Take “Mime” (2014), a life-size aluminum depiction of an eponymous male performer lying on a cot and, eyes closed, pretending (we can assume) to be asleep or dead. The work is not a description. It is one thing, splitting a stylistic difference between realism and abstraction. Just to begin to understand it, you have to walk around to absorb, from multiple angles, aspects of its reflective and shiny surface.

“Family romance”, from 1993.

“Space is the main medium of the sculptor,” Ray once said. The point is underscored at the Met by the scattering of the individual pieces across two cavernous halls. The prevailing emptiness becomes an aesthetic stimulus in itself, as one walks through the installation. Each element, sampling Ray’s multiple subjects and mediums, marks a discreet shock. “Family Romance” (1993), in painted fiberglass and synthetic hair, represents a father, a mother, a young son and a little girl, lined up, hands joined. All are naked and exactly the same size, scaled to the average height of a child of about eight years old. The piece is charged with inexplicable emotion and, once seen, likely to settle permanently in your memory.

“Boy”, from 1992.

“Family Romance” replaces other works, not in the show, with which Ray returned to childhood vulnerabilities and fascinations – sometimes oddly Oedipal in implication. “The New Beetle” (2006), in white painted steel, depicts a naked boy who is transfixed while playing with a large miniature car, probably imagining himself adult and masterful. Reversing this power dynamic, “Father Figure” (2007) is an intimidating and colossal derivation, in solid steel painted green, black and silver, of an old toy farm tractor with a burly guy at the wheel. It weighs eighteen and a half tons.

Ray was born in 1953 in Chicago to parents who ran a commercial art school. A student at the University of Iowa and Rutgers University, he was inspired by the formalist mode of assembled abstract sculpture that predominated at the time, practiced in particular by the British artist Anthony Caro. Around the same time, Ray was alert to emerging trends in post-minimalist performance art. He added the human body to his materials, starting with the one he occupied. Photographs from the Met exhibit, taken in 1973, find him, hippie hair, held aloft against a studio wall by a leaning plank of wood from which he passively dangles, bent at the waist or knees. The effect is both hilarious and oddly elegant: truly sculptural, albeit temporary.

“Mime”, from 2014.

Ray continued to pursue the gamy, still enigmatic self-portraiture, such as when he altered a commercial male mannequin by inserting a sculpted set of his own genitals into it. He designed clothes for other models, which he acquired or made, mostly larger than life: somewhat terrifying and imperious businesswomen, for example, or, as in the series, a boy radiant in pretty suspender shorts. (Does this 1992 piece, “Boy,” feature mockery or self-mockery? Both, I think.) Along the way, Ray veered for a spell in abstract still life. The Plexiglas top of “Table” (1990) and its visually continuous objects supported in clear acrylic, devoid of a background, generate a dizzying unity of space and light.

At first, Ray could seem like a jolly misanthrope, with a fierce animosity that, looking back, makes me think of Voltaire, say: appealing in tone, biting in reward. The first work by Ray that I ever encountered, thirty years ago in a secluded Los Angeles gallery, is not in the exhibition. It looked like a medium-sized minimalist cube painted with glossy black enamel. You don’t touch works of art? Really, no. Probably unaware of the title, “Ink Box” (1986), some unbelieving viewers had discovered the hard way that the top of the cube was clogged with printer ink, one of the dirtiest substances in the world. When I visited the gallery, its white walls were streaked with the hysterical marks of soiled fingers.

The Met Show features another Ray trap from this period, “Rotating Circle” (1988), which appears to be a circle drawn on a wall but is the edge of an integrated disc which, motorized, spins imperceptibly at fantastic speed. Touch that and your finger would have cause for complaint. When I saw the work for the first time, during a Whitney Biennial, I furtively experimented with the cellophane of a cigarette pack: brrrp!

“Huck and Jim”, from 2014.

Many, if not the most ambitious, young creatives resent the world for not noticing their genius from the get-go. Ray’s tyro-aggressiveness certainly signaled an impatience to make an immediate mark – or dent – in art history. The attitude quickly stabilized into principled audacity, pushing him to do things spectacularly difficult to achieve and predictable only by triggering surprises.

These have included “Hinoki” (2007), which is modeled after a huge, hollow and considerably rotten oak log, over thirty feet long, that Ray encountered near a rural roadside. Ray said it took a decade of concerted labor to produce a fanatically faithful cypress effigy. Why? More specifically, why not? All artistic creation is free. “Hinoki,” owned by the Art Institute of Chicago and not present at the Met, essentializes passionate uselessness – something you only have to do because you’ve thought about it and never need to. redo – for his own sake, and, by the way, it looks great.

Ray has risked controversy in recent years with two monumental stainless steel renditions of incidents from “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain’s classic tale of the pre-Civil War South. The Whitney Museum had commissioned “Huck and Jim” (2014) as a sculpture for its plaza. The figures are naked. The fleeing boy bends down to pick up something, not shown, from the ground. (The piece was originally designed as a fountain, with the figures in shallow water and the invisible element a sculpted bouquet of frog eggs.) The adult fugitive slave stands behind him, gazing intently into the distance and extending a hand palm down in a gesture that, hovering over Huck, seems protective. Homoerotic too? Your call.

“Boy with frog”, from 2009.

“Sarah Williams” (2021) finds Jim clothed and kneeling behind a standing Huck, but only to fashion the opportune boy-as-girl disguise to seek his hometown’s opinions on his delinquency. The pose quips on a trope of master and servant. Jim is in charge. Both works reek of ambiguity, reflecting a nation that was, as it remains, riddled with racism. Twain’s fable of a redeeming bond, both ancient and desperately moving, let neither he nor his readers escape this ingrained obscenity. (On the contrary, rather.) Neither does Ray when it comes to himself and the viewers of the sculptures.

Fears of protest, perhaps as reactive to Twain’s novel as Ray’s emulatory audacity, derailed Whitney’s plan for “Huck and Jim.” A version of the piece, waterless and white, debuted indoors at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015. Such is now the peril in American art of racial symbolism, unless it is carried out for genuine ends by certain black artists. Always a formalist to the core, Ray sailed for a bruise when, however tactfully, he tackles social relevance. I wouldn’t have imagined it going too far in this vein, but one work from the show troubles me: “Archangel” (2021), a huge wooden sculpture identified as Gabriel – similarly revered in Jewish religious traditions , Christians and Muslims – appearing to descend from Heaven.

Ray says he updated the Seraph, sensually handsome and clad only in rolled-up jeans and flip-flops, in response to terrorist atrocities in France, such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in 2015. While beautiful, the result strikes me as well-intentioned as a flaw – we’re the sentimental world, unlike the cryptic incarnations of Huck and Jim. Who is Ray, or anyone, to presume a universal healing mission in torturously complicated times? I hope ‘Archangel’ will prove to be a passing tour de force among the disciplined outings of a formidable artist, with versatile meanings, across aesthetic and thematic boundaries which, without him, we would not suspect existed. ♦