An­tiq­uity cast with a mod­ern sheen

Clas­si­cal fig­ures boldly re­sound in an ex­cep­tional show in Chicago of Charles Ray’s sculp­tures.


CHICAGO — Artists of­ten turn to older art as a guide­post in de­vel­op­ing new work. And why not? All art has a con­tem­po­rary di­men­sion, since it’s chat­ter­ing away to­day as surely as the day it was made, even if that was cen­turies ago. Lis­ten­ing to past art is sim­ply a sen­si­ble thing to do.

Some­times, though, the places in which an artist chooses to look are sur­pris­ing.

For­well over a dozen years, Los An­ge­les-based sculp­tor Charles Ray has been look­ing closely at the art of an­tiq­uity. Carved re­liefs from an­cient Me­sopotamia, myth­i­cal be­ings from

Per­i­clean Athens and Hel­lenis­tic Greece and heroic fig­ures from Im­pe­rial Rome now use­fully re­sound in the work of one of to­day’s most sig­nif­i­cant artists.

Clas­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion as a pri­mary en­gine of mod­ern knowl­edge, a faith born of the Age of En­light­en­ment, col­lapsed long ago. Since the wide­spread re­place­ment of lib­eral arts and sciences with prac­ti­cal and pro­fes­sional train­ing, an­tiq­uity has seemed ever more re­mote as a source of artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion.

Yet it’s ev­ery­where in “Charles Ray: Sculp­ture, 1997-2014,” the ex­cep­tional sur­vey on view at the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago through Oct. 4.

Ama­zons, Egypt’s Akhen­aten and Ne­fer­titi, Ninevah’s Ashur­ba­n­i­pal, sleep­ing Eros, the mar­ble Kri­tios Boy, Aphrodite, the eques­trian statue of Mar­cus Aure­lius on Rome’s Capi­to­line Hill — an­cient prece­dents hum within the artis­tic DNA of Ray’s dis­tinc­tive re­cent work.

He’s not a copy­ist — not in the least. Th­ese sculp­tures and re­liefs are not ap­pro­pri­a­tion art. In­stead, Ray has been ab­sorb­ing the lessons of an­tiq­uity to in­fuse con­tem­po­rary fig­u­ra­tive sculp­ture with an imag­i­na­tive in­ner life.

One as­tound­ing re­sult is “Huck and Jim,” a mon­u­men­tal new­work based on Mark Twain’s lit­er­ary master­piece. Grap­pling with Amer­ica’s strug­gle for a civ­i­lized so­ci­ety is a sub­ject as rel­e­vant to­day as it was when Twain’s book was pub­lished 130 years ago. Ray’s sculp­ture, hav­ing its public de­but here, is an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment.

Spare yet po­tent

The ex­hi­bi­tion is pre­sented in a spare and lovely in­stal­la­tion in the mu­seum’s Mod­ern Wing. It was or­ga­nized by Bern­hard Men­des Bürgi, direc­tor at the Kun­st­mu­seum Basel, where it was seen last year, and Art In­sti­tute cu­ra­tor James Ron­deau. Lucky Chicago, where Ray was born in 1953, is its only Amer­i­can venue.

The show fea­tures just 19 sculp­tures fromthe past 17 years. Those num­bers in­di­cate the slow, steady care Ray lav­ishes on his pro­duc­tion. Each work can re­quire years to com­plete.

Take “Alu­minum Girl,” a 5-foot­tall stand­ing nude fab­ri­cated from duc­tile metal and painted a matte, light-ab­sorbent white. (Think chicken’s egg.) This con­tem­po­rary Aphrodite, com­pleted in 2003 and his first in the clas­si­ciz­ing genre, took shape over the course of six years.

Ray started it while deep into the pro­duc­tion of “Un­painted Sculp­ture,” one of sev­eral tour de force works. A smashed-up, 1991 Pon­tiac Grand Am was re­fab­ri­cated from scratch, frag­ment by twisted frag­ment. The ac­tual wrecked car, which the artist found in a sal­vage yard, had been de­mol­ished in a fa­tal ac­ci­dent.

Ray made scores of molds rep­re­sent­ing each wrecked piece from the in­te­rior, ex­te­rior, en­gine com­part­ment and trunk. A fiber­glass model was cast from each mold.

Then, since the process re­sulted in parts slightly larger than the orig­i­nal, they had to be slightly al­tered so they could be fit­ted back to­gether into a co­her­ent whole. The fin­ished ob­ject, not quite a dop­pel­ganger but an un­canny ap­prox­i­ma­tion of life, rests lightly on the ground.

The fin­ished car-wreck sculp­ture was smoothly spray-painted a light gray, uni­fy­ing the volup­tuous form and tamp­ing down its ex­pres­sion­is­tic fer­vor. (Sur­faces are crit­i­cal in Ray’s work, whether metal, wood or fiber­glass, painted or un­painted.) As you move around it, the non­color yields a fleet­ing shadow-play.

Some­one un­known to us died vi­o­lently in the crash that lurks in the sculp­ture’s back story. But a sculp­ture is it­self a bod­ily thing, even if the body is dead and gone. Ghosts lurk in this ma­chine.

Solidly ethe­real

“Un­painted Sculp­ture” is Ray’s “Lao­coön.” That an­cient, Hel­lenis­tic-style sculp­ture was dug up in Rome in 1506. (Michelan­gelo helped with restora­tion of its vivid, ex­pres­sion­is­tic forms.) As ser­pents stran­gle an ag­o­nized priest and his writhing sons, a bravura para­dox emerges: Ideal beauty is em­bed­ded in a sculp­tural en­sem­ble of suf­fer­ing and death.

Mag­nif­i­cent de­cay is a cen­tral theme in “Hi­noki,” the artist’s 32foot-long sculp­tural twin of a mas­sive, fallen oak tree. Ray, his stu­dio crew and Ja­panese crafts­men spent years cast­ing it in sil­i­cone and fiber­glass and then carv­ing out a look-alike from blocks of cy­press.

In clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity, cy­press was a sym­bol of mourn­ing. A wood sculp­ture that por­trays de­com­pos­ing wood will it­self de­com­pose over a span of cen­turies. “Hi­noki” per­forms an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow­mo­tion dance of cycli­cal life and death.

“Sleep­ing Woman” is Ray’s nod to the re­cum­bent sculp­tures of an­tiq­uity, which also in­spired Bran­cusi’s “Sleep­ing Muse.” The vul­ner­a­bil­ity of a cor­pu­lent home­less woman asleep on a bench, head lightly rest­ing on a bed roll, is re­mark­ably con­veyed in solid, ma­chined stain­less steel. Grav­ity pulls down on its vis­ually buoy­ant form, which seems mirac­u­lously poised to drift on a gust of air.

An ethe­real con­di­tion of suspended an­i­ma­tion is trans­formed into some­thing dense and tan­gi­ble. Care­fully bur­nished sur­faces range be­tween finely de­tailed and loosely ab­stract, some­times shiny but mostly matte. Sur­faces of liq­uid light draw the lu­mi­nous en­ergy of the space around her into the hefty sculp­ture’s for­bid­ding mass.

She’s in a deep, dead sleep. If, on a fun­da­men­tal level, tra­di­tional sculp­ture rep­re­sents dor­mant con­scious­ness, then “Sleep­ing Woman” is an en­tire genre’s bril­liant in­car­na­tion.

Last year Ray fin­ished “School Play,” a com­pact sculp­ture that traces his work’s clas­si­cal arc. A pre-teen boy is in cos­tume to per­form a Ro­man-themed the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion. Wrapped in a bed­sheet toga and wear­ing beach san­dals and a T-shirt tu­nic, he grasps an elab­o­rate toy sword in his right hand.

Vis­ually, the fig­ure is en­cased within a snug ver­ti­cal col­umn. Space is as tightly wound around him as his toga, weight evenly dis­trib­uted on both feet. But Ray has made the solid, stain­less-steel boy 6 feet tall— the size of an adult. The child be­comes fa­ther of the man, a boy dis­con­cert­ingly caught betwixt and be­tween.

Lively in­ter­play

The ten­sions be­tween child­hood and ma­tu­rity con­sti­tute a re­cur­rent theme in Ray’s art. It’s the core of “Huck and Jim,” the breath­tak­ing new work based on Mark Twain’s “amaz­ing, trou­bling book,” as nov­el­ist Toni Mor­ri­son once de­scribed “Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn.”

Ray’s two beau­ti­fully mod­u­lated fig­ures are150% life size. They’re large enough to sug­gest the mon­u­men­tal place held in the Amer­i­can psy­che by Twain’s de­cep­tively sim­ple novel about a white boy and a run­away black slave flee­ing down the Mis­sis­sippi River, yet small enough to re­late to a viewer’s own body.

Both fig­ures are un­clothed. (The sculp­ture was de­signed fo­ran out­door plaza in front of the new Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in New York, but the plan un­sur­pris­ingly fell apart over in­sti­tu­tional ner­vous­ness about the nu­dity.) The 28-year-old man and the 14-year-old boy are shown in keep­ing with the steamy river nar­ra­tive —“We was al­ways naked, day and night, when­ever the mos­qui­toes would let us,” Huck says— en­hanc­ing a sense of sculp­tural can­dor.

Jim stands tall, head slightly turned as if in watch­ful vig­i­lance. Huck bends over, cu­ri­ous and mak­ing a scoop­ing mo­tion near the floor. A lively in­ter­play of limbs, sturdy or limp, in the sculp­ture’s lower half contrasts with the fo­cused still­ness above.

Ray ex­plains in the show’s fine cat­a­log that the com­po­si­tion de­rives from a book pas­sage about the ori­gin of the night sky’s twin­kling stars. They’ve al­ways been there, Huck as­sumes; Jim says no, they were laid there by the moon.

Huck al­lows that Jim’s po­etic pos­si­bil­ity could be true, since he’s seen a sin­gle frog lay thou­sands of eggs. That ex­plains what he’s scoop­ing up frombe­low.

Yet know­ing this cos­mic nar­ra­tive isn’t nec­es­sary to be­moved by the sculp­ture. The trans­fix­ing mo­ment comes in the open palm of Jim’s right hand, which hov­ers just inches above vul­ner­a­ble Huck’s bent back. It’s a ges­ture of re­served pro­tec­tive­ness just shy of hu­man touch.

Twain’s book is a knotty chron­i­cle of child­hood alien­ation, some­times sober, some­times comic. That lit­tle gap be­tween Jim’s hand and Huck’s back elec­tri­fies Ray’s sculp­ture— a space of dis­con­nect be­tween child and adult, black and white, worldly ex­plo­ration and homey sanc­tu­ary, even the artist’s hand and art’s prohibition against touch. The gap may or may not ever close.

For all of their clas­si­cal re­gard, Ray’s sculp­tures don’t look back­ward. His work is not Neo-Clas­si­cal.

Nor does it clamor for a “re­turn to or­der” in our time of chaotic up­heaval, like the one in the grim wake of the First World War that marked the 1920s Neo-Clas­si­cal Mod­ernism of Pi­casso, De Chirico and the New Ob­jec­tiv­ity move­ment. The 21st cen­tury may be spin­ning off its axis, but Ray’s re­fined aura is ab­sent starry-eyed ide­al­iza­tion.

In­stead, a hu­man­i­tar­ian re­solve dis­tin­guishes his work. When Ray qui­etly de­picts him­self as a jeans- and loafer-clad rider on horse­back in a full-scale eques­trian sculp­ture now in­stalled in the mu­seum’s gar­den, he’s nei­ther Bellerophon astride Pe­ga­sus nor some im­pe­rial gen­eral co­erc­ing awe. He’s just a shrewd and in­tu­itive artist with an an­i­mal de­ter­mi­na­tion to feel hisway through.

Art In­sti­tute of Chicago

CHARLES RAY’S “Sleep­ingWo­man” is a stain­less-steel nod to the re­clin­ing sculp­tures of old.

Charles Ray Art In­sti­tute of Chicago

“HUCK AND JIM,” mak­ing its public de­but at Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, is an as­tound­ing achieve­ment for L.A.-based Charles Ray.

Art In­sti­tute of Chicago

“HORSE AND RIDER” is a self-por­trait of the artist quite un­like the heroic eques­trian sculp­tures through­out his­tory.

Art In­sti­tute of Chicago

“UN­PAINTED SCULP­TURE” re-cre­ates a de­mol­ished Pon­tiac Grand Am that Ray hap­pened upon in a sal­vage yard.


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