Matthew Marks Gallery
Charles Ray has produced some of the most consequential sculpture of the past 30 years. In accounting for his work, however, such a proclamation can seem meaningless, since his best pieces have the effect of collapsing both time and space. This is, in large measure, the result of his working methodology, which moves at a quasi-glacial pace, both meandering and highly deliberate, and which allows for a work to develop organically through complex associative and structural processes while retaining an intuitive foundation. But the real magic lies in Ray’s ability to wed an idea to a form and to convey, despite the daunting complexity of many of his works, a profound sense of wonder and immediacy. An uncanny capacity to infuse the prosaic with a transcendental energy defines much of his work.
Ray’s earliest works were an offshoot of conceptualism that attempted, successfully, to activate sculpture with the immediacy of performance. They were also subtly evocative perceptual exercises, often playing tricks with space, the viewer, and received notions about the implicitly static nature of objects in the physical world. His more recent work has remained true to those early concerns, while dramatically expanding his engagement with more demanding materials and a wider art historical scope.
In “three rooms and the repair annex,” Ray’s recent exhibition, five new sculptures spread across four rooms in two of Matthew Marks’ 22nd Street galleries, which afforded ample space to interact with individual works. Ray divided the larger gallery, 522 West 22nd Street, into three rooms and installed a single sculpture in each. Reclining Woman (2018), a slightly larger than life- size figure milled from a block of solid stainless steel, occupied the center of the main room. The industrially machined steel, a recurring material for Ray, has a dull reflectivity that avoids conspicuous spectacle while still drawing the eye to its luminous orbit. In all other respects, Ray’s middle-aged nude is anything but idealized; she possesses a matter-of- fact realism that, coupled with the shift in scale, produces a formidable weirdness. Manet’s Olympia comes to mind, but Reclining Woman leaves no narrative clues to distract from its formal and material fact. In this regard, Ray manages to fuse Minimalism and classicism, further confounding and collapsing art historical narratives.
In one of the smaller rooms, Mountain Lion Attacking a Dog (2018) shifted the scale to a more intimate engagement. Ray conjured this imagined assault while walking in the hills around his Los Angeles home and thinking about the Greek marble Lion Attacking a Horse, in the nearby
J. Paul Getty Museum. The cast sterling silver sculpture is just over three feet long and less than two feet high. Its size, radiant silver finish, and flawless fabrication give it a fetishistic allure: Buccellati comes to mind, but in the service of a suburban nature scene. The work is a concise summation of the diverse sculptural references that can populate a single piece by Ray.
Hybridity was also evident in A copy of ten marble fragments of the Great Eleusinian Relief (2017) in the other small room. Based on a work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, itself a composite of Roman marble fragments fused into a plaster cast of the ancient Greek original, the piece inserts itself into an already slippery discourse. Although machined from a solid block of aluminum, its material presence confounds the historical copy, creating inertia and pulling past into present with unsettling effect.
Next door, two small sculptures shared the space at 526 West 22nd Street. Mechanic 1 and Mechanic 2 (2018) were both machined from solid stainless steel and painted in a ghostly matte white. The effect is eerie and transformative. Each work depicts the same figure in a different pose—one removing the wheel rim from a car tire, the other crouching and looking on. The subtle coupling serves to activate the space between and around the sculptures, implicating the viewer in a metaphysical exchange. The precise modeling of these small figures (and the tire) gives them a riveting delicacy that causes one’s mind to race with thoughts of human labor as increasingly divorced from physical activity. Conjuring sensations of transcendence and dematerialization via static sculptural form is no small feat. Ray’s “repair annex” functioned as a locus of sculptural rehabilitation in an increasingly digital age.