Matthew Marks Gallery | Los Angeles
April 28 – June 23, 2012
Figurative sculpture has been a mainstay of Charles Ray’s since his early days as an artist when he pinned his elevated body against the wall with a board (“Plank Piece I” and “II”, 1973) and arranged himself naked on metal shelves, merging minimalism’s hard forms and surfaces with flesh. Since then, the figurative line of his work has shifted to lifelike fiberglass, as in 1992’s “Oh Charley, Charley, Charley,” the group orgy scene starring eight copies of himself, and to painted metal, as in 2009’s white steel “Boy With Frog,” a permanent installation on Venice’s Grand Canal. Ray’s first solo show in L.A. since the remarkable 2007 exhibition at Regen Projects of “Hinoki,” a reconstructed fallen tree, contains two figures: “Young Man” and “Sleeping Woman” (both 2012) in machined solid stainless steel, unpainted and polished to a soft sheen. From real flesh to flesh-like fiberglass to flat-painted metal to silvery stainless steel: Ray’s figures might be steadily backing away from anthropomorphism.
Though the two sculptures are separate pieces, Ray situated them carefully for the exhibition, placing them a stone’s throw apart in the otherwise empty gallery of Matthew Marks’ newly opened West Hollywood location, at the exact distance at which their spheres of energy barely overlap; whether or not they share a plane is a compelling ambiguity. As with much of Ray’s work, their qualities extend into unexpected dimensions. Each is enormously heavy, with the larger sculpture, “Sleeping Woman,” weighing in at 6,000 pounds. Along with its weight, the mesmerizing, gelatinous way light slides over stainless steel, with no hard glare or glints, must have attracted Ray to the medium. It’s odd to see skin, hair, and clothing rendered in this material, which has the reflective properties of satin. More than Ray’s flat-painted aluminum figures, definitely more than the fiberglass mannequins, “Young Man” and “Sleeping Woman” wobble between identities as pure objects and human stand-ins.
Yet there’s something peculiarly inert about these sculptures that inhibits their power, even if, given their poses, the woman dozing on a bench, the young man standing with a dumbfounded expression as if gravity has slowed him to stillness, this inertia is a quality Ray means to exploit. The movement, the ripple in reality that we’ve come to expect, perhaps too automatically, when encountering Ray’s work feels absent, maybe merely because the sculptures’ luxe silver color causes them to read before almost all else as collectors’ trophies. Of course they are, in part, and we should question whether it’s Ray’s job to shield this fact from the viewer. But whereas Ray’s strongest work causes us to navigate a jog in perception, we encounter these sculptures squarely, on an everyday, material plane. A shell-like art-object status encases “Young Man” and “Sleeping Woman,” canceling out their potential to feel uncanny. Meanwhile, light plays over their exteriors in shifting abstract shapes, creating another obscuring layer, if a lovely one. There is conceptual and physical beauty in these sculptures, but their surfaces have a curious way of muting their psychic impact.