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Charles Ray
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essay Charles Ray, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Los Angeles–based sculptor Charles Ray came to prominence in the 1980s as he embarked on a quest to find alternative routes to investigate abstract form. In overtly “abstract” works such as Ink Box (1986), a deceptively minimalist-looking hollow cube filled to the top with printer’s ink, or in “figurative” works such as Fall ’91 (1992), a female mannequin donning high-fashion garb that has been enlarged to an Amazonian scale, Ray enacted an aesthetic program that at its core would navigate the anxious space between sculpture’s formal plane of existence and its more psychological, or what he has called its hallucinatory, level. It is precisely at this uncomfortable juncture between form and content, where abstraction and figuration collide, that we can locate his Unpainted Sculpture (1997).

Nearly two years in the making, this work is a life-size fiberglass cast of a 1991 Pontiac Grand Am that had been totaled in a deadly accident. Like many of Ray’s works, Unpainted Sculpture was in part the result of a chance occurrence. During a dinner conversation with a student whose car had been repeatedly involved in accidents, Ray suggested that he simply reconstruct the car’s bumper, cast it in fiberglass, and reattach it. When another student pointed out that this would be a good idea for one of Ray’s sculptures, an idea was born. The artist then spent more than two months searching insurance lots, looking for wrecks in which fatalities had occurred. He hoped to locate a vehicle that would transcend the specificities of any particular accident and would therefore attain the level of “a kind of Platonic version of a wrecked car—one that was perfect.”1 Purchasing the wreck from an auction, Ray painstakingly took the car apart, individually casting each piece in fiberglass, and then reassembling the cast elements piece by piece as if it were a model hobby kit. The entire work was then uniformly covered with two coats of gray primer paint, producing a unified, monochromatically flattened surface that tends to partially neutralize the object’s referential connection to reality. We are left with an object that is on the one hand Baroque in both the dynamism of its formal structure and in its ability to spatially fold together the inside and the outside, and on the other hand disturbingly hallucinatory in its rendering of the world at large.

Ray’s sculptural resurrection of this automobile transforms the original object into a kind of spectral phantom of its former self, a transformation that moved it, in the artist’s mind, into the formal register of abstraction. As Ray suggests, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I wondered that if there were ghosts, would the ghost inhabit the actual physical molecules of the structure, or would it be more interested in inhabiting the topology or geometry of the structure? You know, if you were to duplicate the geometry, would the ghost follow?”2 This is the crucial question posed by Unpainted Sculpture. Did the ghost move into this fiberglass object? Does it reference the real, much like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of car wrecks, or is it an object that has been drained of all reference to the tragic event that created its crumpled form? Is this work a late twentieth-century version of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa that acts as a cautionary marker of the perils of American consumer culture, or is it a study in the relationship of the aleatory to abstract sculptural form? In the end, like the best Baroque sculpture, Unpainted Sculpture moves with us as we move around it. Unlike the Baroque, however, this is a movement that is both physical and conceptual, making the work resonate between the poles of figuration and abstraction. This is the contradiction at the heart of this doppelgänger, the anxiety that glides across the surface of its gray paint forcing our perceptions to vacillate between the familiar and the uncanny. As the artist himself notes, “In contemporary art, surface is an expression of anxiety, and no one is as anxious about surface as I am.”3

  1. Quoted in Robert Storr, “Anxious Spaces,” Art in America 86, no. 11 (November 1998): 106.

  2. Quoted in Dennis Cooper, “Charles Ray,” Index Magazine 2, no. 6 (January/February 1998): 38–46.

  3. Quoted in Storr, “Anxious Spaces,” 106.

Fogle, Douglas. “Charles Ray.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


biography Charles Ray, Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures Walker Art Center, 2000

Making the commonplace strange is central to the work of Los Angeles-based artist Charles Ray. Often creating hybrid forms, he embraces diverse mediums–including sculpture, photography, performance, and film–to communicate his slightly absurd take on the familiar objects that surround us: tables, shelves, clocks, automobiles, department-store mannequins. His work has been called “conceptual realism,” as he often melds intriguing abstract ideas with a figurative tradition rooted in classical art technique. Keystones to his work are immaculate craftsmanship, simple trompe l'oeil devices, odd shifts in scale or expected relationships between viewer and object, and displacements in time. He has commented that for him, “the struggle is to bring [an] idea into the world in a non-trite way, so that it reenchants the world or activates it, somehow.” Let’s Entertain features Revolution Counter Revolution (1990), a sculpture of a carousel one might find in an old-fashioned carnival. A hand-turned mechanical device moves the carousel in two directions simultaneously, thus causing the horses and sleds to appear perfectly still. At once witty and subtle, the work transports us to a somewhat hallucinatory space where time has stopped. The discrepancy between what the eye appears to “see” and the actuality of the situation destabilizes our notions of reality and calls the very idea of a “still life” into question. The precision of the timing and the mechanism that controls this sculpture are indicative of the artist’s exacting attention to detail. The merry-go-round, a traditional icon of the county fair and simple values, becomes part of a contemporary and private game that freezes and questions the spectacle of the family and entertainment. In a world filled with predictable mass-media images, Ray provides new models for contemplation and enchantment.

Charles Ray biography from Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures, Walker Art Center, 2000.