The Metropolitan Museum of Art has never looked so sharply contemporary, even hip, as with the ‘Charles Ray: Figure Ground’ exhibition. This boldly streamlined show summarizes the five-decade career of the notable American sculptor Charles Ray in just 19 works of art, three of which are photographic pieces. They occupy a spacious gallery of 9,600 square meters, separated by a single wall. The sprawling dark, unoccupied stone floor feels less like the Met than the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum’s old Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. Welcome to now it seems to say.
Before reading a single wall text, the show’s open vistas indicate that the space itself is an important consideration for this artist, as it is for his minimalist and post-minimalist elders Donald Judd and Richard Serra. But Ray had a busier schedule, one that expanded over the years to include American history, literature, and pop culture, as well as the history of sculpture itself. Sufficient space is especially important for the increasingly figurative sculptures Ray has been making since 1990, works in which distortions in size, scale or proportion often have a visceral, even unsettling effect on the viewer. And this effect is provocatively complicated by viewing his sculptures from different distances and angles.
It is one thing to look at a 3 meter high sculpture of a naked man made of silvery soft shiny metal 30 or 50 feet and another to look up at him when you are much closer, in awe of his height and intrigued by his relationship with a smaller adolescent man next to him, who bends almost double and holds his hand close to the floor of the gallery, as if to scoop something up. You may wonder if the strength of this two-digit sculpture, which stands firmly on the floor, reflects the fact that the figures have the density and silence of stone: they are made of solid aluminum, an ubiquitous industrial material, and finished by hand. The wall label clarifies as a real riddle begins to take 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 male child sailing down the Mississippi on a raft, and for what it is. worth spending much of their event-packed journey without clothing. It leaves the viewer with a complex ball of wax to contend with, one that encompasses homoeroticism, masculinity and America’s enduring self-inflicted wound, racism.
Nearby, “Boy With frog” presents another riddle: a larger-than-life boy – 8 feet tall. Its white-painted stainless steel body is reminiscent of Greek marble, another 19th-century sculpture derived from it, such as Hiram Powers’ 1857 “Fisher Boy,” owned and on display at the Met. The boy observes the evil-hooded frog, his spotless skin suggesting innocence, in stark contrast to his victim’s beautifully detailed roughness.
Ray belongs to a generation of sculptors born mainly in the mid-1950s who refused minimalism as an answer. The reductive style had virtually eliminated object-making among the conceptualists. But younger artists returned to the object with a new awareness. Ray and artists such as Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Jeff Koons, Alison Saar, Ana Mendieta, and Takashi Murakami found ways to bring the figure and story back into sculpture.
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Ray’s efforts have come closest to traditional sculpture, especially in the use of realism, while also updating some of minimalism’s most cherished beliefs – the rejection of the basics of sculpture, the love of industrial materials being lavishly used, the attention to detail and the care for size and proportions. In fact, the combination defines him as a radical conservative.
Ray was born in Chicago in 1953 and received 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 University of California Los Angeles, settled in the City of Angels and has lived there ever since.
Ray made serious work while still a student and played brilliantly with the art of his immediate predecessors. For a while it looked like he could be a jester at the court of serious art. The two large black-and-white photographs of “Plank Piece I and II” (1973), one of the earliest works at the Met, show the artist riffs on early post-minimalism’s emphasis on soft pliable materials and on the use of their own bodies. by artists. He gets better, using his body as a soft material, pinning his limp form to the wall with a thick wooden board as if it were a sheet of soft lead in a sculpture by the young Richard Serra.
Over the next decade Ray designed numerous performance-related sculptures, often surreal in tone. No wonder, this way of working exhausted him. Ray must have realized that if he wanted the body in his art, it could no longer be his own.
To the credit of the show’s organizers, Kelly Baum and Brinda Kumar, this carefully selected show effectively portrays the growth of Ray’s sensibility, its steady opening since the late 1980s; the shift of focus from personal to societal space; and the attainment of a kind of perfection or specificity that expresses the concentration and laborious methods with which these works, which sometimes take 5 to 10 years to realize.
Ray’s first figurative sculptures, appearing in 1990, were mannequins—perhaps the most visible examples of contemporary figurative sculpture in America’s vast consumer landscape. Produced to his specifications by professional mannequins in painted fiberglass with glass eyes, these works allowed for changes of size and scale to startle the viewer. At the Met, the earliest mannequin piece is “Boy” from 1992, a very pale, red-haired child with blue eyes, perhaps a mother’s child, dressed in a delicate ensemble of shorts, shirt and knee socks, almost identical to those figures in shop windows in the 50s and 60s. It all sounds harmless, except that this kid is almost six feet, some kind of monster that doesn’t please children and parents alike.
Even more disturbing is ‘Family Romance’, a sculpture with four mannequins of the classic nuclear family – mother, father, sister, brother. The parents are reduced in size, the children are slightly enlarged, so they are all about 4½ feet long – and naked. Another odd effect is that the scaling makes the children appear larger than the parents, suggesting that in too many American families, children are growing up too quickly, being raised by parents who never fully matured.
After a while, this show doesn’t seem so small. Look, read the labels, think about the thorny unanswered questions that many of the pieces leave you with. “Boy With Frog” and “Huck and Jim” were both intended for public display – one in Venice, the other for the Whitney – and were then withdrawn. Perhaps Ray is the best public sculptor, someone who wants people to think. He repeatedly dodges the expected. As you approach his “Reclining Woman” – an aluminum figure on an aluminum block – you gradually see that this art-historical trope has been replaced by a very contemporary-looking real person with squinting eyes, love handles and cellulite and, even more, strength of personality. “Archangel” (2021), carved by Japanese woodworkers from honey-colored Japanese cypress, has its own everyday trappings – thongs, rolled jeans and a man’s bun. But the extreme cushioning is otherworldly, while its raised heel and outstretched arms imply the wonder of flight.
“Sarah Williams”, an aluminum sculpture also from 2021, is the show’s final work. It returns to the antebellum story of Huck and Jim, to depict a scene where Jim helps Huck disguise himself as a woman so he can figure out who, on their final layover, might threaten their freedom. This time Huck looks incredibly tall, dressed in a long gown whose folds fall like flutes on a column; Jim, kneeling behind him, has been working on the hem. They both play a role: a white teenager in drag and a black man who does women’s work. And they both seem palpably sad. Huck’s head is bowed; Jim’s face is wrinkled, subtly tormented. Perhaps they sense the great conflagration coming—the civil war, whose tragic cause would remain painfully unfinished more than 150 years later.
Charles Ray: Figure Ground
Through June 5, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.