“Charles Ray: Figure Ground” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Charles Ray, Huck and Jim (2014), stainless steel, 9 ft. 3 . in. × 54 in. × 53 . in.; collection of Lisa and Steven Tananbaum

An abundance of ironies circulates around the sculpture of the Los Angeles–based artist Charles Ray (born 1953), none of which redound to the work’s benefit. Take the use of floor tape in “Charles Ray: Figure Ground,” a mid-career overview of an “elliptical, often irreverent” talent. We’re familiar with the means by which visitors to museums and galleries are reminded to keep a distance from a work of art, thereby avoiding potential damage to the object on display. At the Met, each of Ray’s sculptures is surrounded by floor tape that is gritty in texture and has been laid out to create a non-violable space measuring about three feet across. “Don’t touch the art”; we get it. Still, my curiosity was piqued. After exiting the show, I strolled past some large Rodin bronzes in the nineteenth-century galleries. They weren’t surrounded by tape. Later, I made a pit stop at two favorite pieces in the Greek and Roman wing: an Aphrodite, rendered in marble, dating to around the second century A.D., and a Hellenistic bronze of a man from about the same time. The courtesy of floor tape had not been extended to these mainstays of the collection. Some works of art, it seems, are more worthy of protection than others.

Lenders to “Figure Ground” likely stipulated that their loans be given adequate security. An internet search reveals that an original Ray can cost as much as $3 million. Given that kind of money, you have to sympathize with the institution or collector making demands. Investments, however, are one thing; art, another. The thing about a Rodin effigy or a piece of antique statuary is that their surfaces elicit a distinct pleasure—of sensuality and sensation, a longing for tactility. That is part of their enduring appeal. The sculptures of Charles Ray— what kind of person would want to touch one of those things? Figurative though they may be, and often nude, the works have all the bodily allure of a newly minted refrigerator or, and this analogy is more to the point, the stainless-steel tables used for autopsies and embalming. Ray’s predominant métier is, in fact, stainless steel—sometimes painted, often polished to a blinding sheen. The artist’s creative process combines “the analog and the digital as well as human and robotic hands.” Any tool or material is fair game; it’s what the artist does with them that matters. What Ray does, along with assistants and craftsmen, is render a given material simultaneously anti-septic and icky, slick and severe. This is an art that makes a fetish of the inhuman.

Ray’s supporters demur. In the catalogue, Brinda Kumar, the Met’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, lauds the artist’s “modalities of touch.” In Ray’s sculpture, “the potentiality of material, of matter, is made active, i.e., it is in mattering [emphasis in original] that the object is set into motion through time”—the sentence goes on. Kelly Baum, the museum’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, invokes the word “pattern”—as noun, verb, and theoretical cornerstone: “Ray’s patterns very often lead to other patterns; behind every prototype is another prototype to which it is related via a chain of signification.” There’s more about pattern in Baum’s essay, most of it murky in definition. Ray himself gives away the game with 81 x 83 x 85 = 86 x 83 x 85 (1989), one of the earliest pieces in the show. Anyone conversant with twentieth-century American art will recognize that it stems from Richard Serra’s “prop” series. In replacing rough-hewn steel with high-gloss aluminum, Minimalist showboating is transmuted into corporate kitsch. Ray, in other words, gilds Serra’s lily. Ever the faithful postmodernist, Ray passes off smug commentary as High Art. It’s enough to make one forgive Serra and his bullying ways.


Charles Ray, Family Romance (1993), painted fiberglass and hair, 53 x 85 x 11″;
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation

Minimalism, with its brute insistence on the object and inherent hostility to metaphor, is, nonetheless, Ray’s jumping-off point: material obduracy sets the tone. Admittedly, the work is peppered with post-conceptualist fabulation, and you’d best believe that identity politics enter into it. Be thankful that Baum and Kumar did not include Oh!? Charley, Charley, Charley . . . (1992), a mixed-media piece in which eight life-size figures of the artist engage in a variety of sexual antics. Ray’s most emblematic work, Family Romance (1993), is featured at the Met: mom, dad, little brother, and baby sister are seen holding hands, each of them nude and equal in height and proportion. This not-so-happy family has been manufactured with a mannequin-like verisimilitude. Shifts in scale, particularly when it comes to the human body, are invariably disconcerting. But Ray doesn’t do much more than distort form in order to make a joke about—what, exactly? A wall label informs us that Family Romance “decouples the human and the ‘natural,’ disassociating sex, gender, and race from biology.” There is nothing more reliable than torturous circumlocution when obscuring an achievement of rank stupidity.

Race also figures into Ray’s art—kind of, sort of, almost. Sarah Williams (2021)—that’s right, the guise Huckleberry Finn adopted in Mark Twain’s classic nineteenth-century novel—proves particularly relevant in that it bears comparison with James Earle Fraser’s Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt (1939). You’re familiar with the latter, of course: the bronze effigy of our twenty-sixth president recently removed from its perch at the American Museum of Natural History for its presumed endorsement of racial inferiority. Mores change over time, as do considerations of the body politic. Still, it should be noted that Fraser’s stated intention with the monument was to honor Roosevelt’s “friendliness to all races”—a fact worth reiterating at a cultural moment when intention is privileged over artifact. The intention fueling Sarah Williams is, we are told, a critique of “race-based relations of domination and subordination.” For right now, that will do. But how kindly will forward-thinking Americans esteem Ray’s overscaled depiction of a black man kneeling behind a white boy in 2122? History has its own wiles, and they can be humbling. In the meantime, “Figure Ground” is an exhibition of unremitting nihilism, staggering narcissism, and unapologetic pretension.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: