In ‘Charles Ray: Figure Ground’, a radical conservative exposed

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has never looked so decidedly contemporary, even hip, as it does with the “Charles Ray: Figure Ground” exhibit. This boldly simplified exhibition surveys the five-decade career of the remarkable American sculptor Charles Ray in just 19 works of art, including three photographs. They occupy a spacious 9,600 square foot gallery divided by a single wall. The stretches of dark, unoccupied stone flooring resemble the Met less than the fourth level of the former Marcel Breuer Building of the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue. welcome to now he seems to say.

Before reading a single wall text, the exhibition’s open perspectives signal that space itself is a major consideration for this artist, as it was for his minimalist and post-minimalist elders Donald Judd and Richard Serra. But Ray had a busier schedule, which, expanding over the years, has come to include American history, literature, and pop culture as well as the history of sculpture itself. Sufficient space is especially important for the ever-stronger figurative sculptures that Ray has been making since 1990, works in which distortions of size, scale or proportion often have a visceral, even disturbing, effect on the viewer. And this effect is provocatively complicated by seeing his sculptures from different angles and distances.

It’s one thing to look at a sculpture of a 9-foot-tall naked man in silvery, slightly shiny metal from 30 or 50 feet away and quite another to look at him when you’re much closer, impressed by his size and intrigued by his relationship with a smaller teenager next to him, who almost bends over, putting his hand near the floor of the gallery, as if to pick something up. You may begin to wonder if the power of this two figure sculpture standing firmly on the ground reflects the fact that the figures have the density and stillness of stone: they are made of solid stainless steel, an industrial material, and finished by hand. The wall label becomes clearer while a real enigma takes shape. The work is titled “Huck and Jim”, the main characters of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” – one an adult fleeing slavery, the other a white man-child, who sails down the Mississippi on a raft, and for what it’s worth, spend much of their eventful journey without clothes on. It leaves the viewer with a complex ball of wax to grapple with, one that includes homoeroticism, masculinity, and America’s enduring self-inflicted wound, racism.

Nearby, “Boy With Frog” presents another conundrum: a larger-than-life boy – 8 feet tall. Its white painted stainless steel body is reminiscent of Greek marble, also the 19th century sculpture derived from it, such as Hiram Powers’ “Fisher Boy” of 1857, owned by and exhibited at the Met. The boy watches the frog with hooded malevolence as his flawless skin implies innocence, in stark contrast to the delightfully detailed roughness of his victim.

Ray belongs to a generation of sculptors mostly born in the mid-1950s who refused to take minimalism for an answer. The reductive style had virtually eliminated object-making among the Conceptualists. But younger artists return to the object with a new awareness. Ray and artists like Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Jeff Koons, Alison Saar, Ana Mendieta and Takashi Murakami found ways to bring figure and narrative back into sculpture.

Ray’s efforts approached traditional sculpture, particularly in their use of realism while updating some of the most cherished beliefs in minimalism – his rejection of the base of sculpture, his love of industrial materials used profusely , his attention to detail and his attention to size and proportion. . The combination, indeed, defines him as a radical conservative.

Ray was born in Chicago in 1953 and earned a BFA from the University of Iowa in 1975 and an MFA from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1979. In 1981 he accepted a teaching position at the he University of California, Los Angeles, took up residence in the City of Angels and has lived there ever since.

Ray did serious work while still a student, brilliantly blundering on the art of his immediate predecessors. For a moment, it looked like he might be a serious art court jester. The two large black-and-white photographs of “Plank Piece I and II” (1973), one of the Met’s earliest works, show the artist riffing on early post-minimalism’s emphasis on soft materials and flexible and on the artists’ use of their own bodies. . He goes on better, uses his body as a soft material, pinning his soft form to the wall with a thick plank of wood as if it were a sheet of soft lead in a sculpture of young Serra.

Over the next decade, Ray designed numerous performance-related sculptures, often in a surreal tone. No surprise, this way of working was exhausting him. Ray had to realize that if he wanted the body in his art, it could no longer be his.

It is to the credit of the show’s organizers, Kelly Baum and Brinda Kumar, that this carefully selected show captures the growth of Ray’s sensibility, its steady blossoming since the late 1980s; its shift in focus from personal space to civic space; and his attainment of a kind of perfection or specificity that conveys the concentration and the arduous methods by which these works, which sometimes take 5 to 10 years to come to fruition, come to fruition.

Ray’s first figurative sculptures, which appeared in 1990, were mannequins – arguably the most visible examples of contemporary figurative sculpture in the vast American consumer landscape. Made to his specifications by professional mannequin makers in painted fiberglass with glass eyes, these works allowed for alterations in size and scale in order to surprise the viewer. At the Met, the first modeling piece is 1992’s “Boy,” a very pale, red-haired, blue-eyed child, possibly a mama’s boy, dressed in a delicate ensemble of shorts, shirt and socks, almost identical to those found in window displays of the 1950s and 1960s. It all seems innocent enough, except that this child is almost six feet tall, a kind of monster that does not reflect children or children well. parents.

Even more unsettling is “Family Romance”, a sculpture of four mannequins of the classic nuclear family – mother, father, sister, brother. The parents have been reduced in size, the children slightly enlarged, so they are all around 4 years old.½ feet tall – and bare. Another strange effect is that the scaling makes the children appear taller than the parents, suggesting that in too many American families, the children are growing up too quickly, raised by parents who have never really matured.

After a while, this show doesn’t seem so small anymore. Look, read the labels, ponder the thorny unanswered questions that many coins leave you with. “Boy With Frog” and “Huck and Jim” were both intended for public display – one in Venice, the other outside the Whitney – and then retired. Ray is perhaps the best kind of public sculptor, one who wants people to think. He repeatedly avoids the expected. As you approach his “Recumbent Woman” – a steel figure on a steel block – you gradually see that this art historical trope has been replaced by a very real looking person. contemporary with squinting eyes, love handles and cellulite and, what’s more, strength of personality. “Archangel” (2021), sculpted by Japanese carpenters from honey-colored Japanese cypress, has its own everyday trappings – flip-flops, rolled-up jeans and a man bun. But his extreme attenuation is otherworldly, while his raised heel and outstretched arms imply the miracle of flight.

“Sarah Williams”, a stainless steel sculpture also from 2021, is the show’s final work. It returns to the pre-war tale of Huck and Jim, to depict a scene of Jim helping Huck disguise himself as a woman so he can determine who, at their final stopover, might threaten their freedom. This time, Huck looks impossibly tall, wearing a long robe whose folds fall like flutes on a column; Jim, kneeling behind him, worked on the hem. They both play roles: a white teenager in drag and a black man doing women’s work. And they both look obviously sad. Huck’s head is tilted; Jim’s face straightens, subtly anguished. Perhaps they foresee the conflagration to come – the civil war, the tragic affair of which will remain painfully unfinished more than 150 years later.


Charles Ray: Figure Ground

Until June 5, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.

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