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