The Charles Ray Experience 

At MOCA and beyond

Wednesday, Dec 2 1998
Collection Newport Harbor Art Museum

Experiencing Charles Ray in the flesh is much like confronting one of his perceptually boggling sculptures. The conversation stutters around ideas, some abstract, some fragmentary, some narrative. A direct question may be deflected only to re-emerge from some strange loop of elliptical reasoning in an entirely contradictory form, and he habitually undermines the weight of his opinions with "sort of," "kind of," "it seems to me." The subject of a highly touted retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Paul Schimmel (whose flawed but legendary "Helter Skelter" show of 1992 first put Ray on the art star map), Ray both exemplifies and stands apart from the handful of L.A.-based artists to achieve an international par in the ’90s art world. Doggedly formalist, Ray steers wide of the messy psychosexual theatrics in which Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley frequently indulge; yet the explicit sexual content of a string of early-’90s mannequin-derived sculptures fixed him in the public mind as one of these "bad boys" of contemporary Los Angeles art. "Charles Ray" the retrospective goes a long way toward broadening that perception.

One of the strongest shows to come out of MOCA in recent memory, it follows Ray’s progress from a second-generation disciple of British formal abstract sculptor Anthony Caro through his strange hybrids of formalism and Burden esque body art in the ’80s; the trompe l’oeil modern-art dislocations that followed, such as Ink Box (a large open cube filled to the brim with printer’s ink, mimicking an archetypal minimalist sculpture); the mannequin series (including three 10-foot fashion mannequins known as Fall ’91, a 6-foot-tall Boy, a nude family scaled to average height, and Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley . . . , an orgy made up of eight self-portraits); the giant toy Firetruck (not in the previous Whitney version of the show, it’s exhibited for the first time in L.A.); Unpainted Sculpture, the mimetic fiberglass car wreck (for which he reproduced each piece of a wrecked car); finally approaching his current locus of interests with the oddly affecting 16mm film Fashions. A model of artistic dedication, Ray pours much of his considerable earnings into the fabrication of new work. Recently, he taught himself to sew, and reproduced his trademark schlep uniform (jeans, plaid shirt and windbreaker) in exacting detail. While installing his show, he rode his bike to MOCA every day from his home in West L.A. I spoke with him in his modest bungalow a couple of days before the show opened.

L.A. WEEKLY: Do you consider yourself a "Los Angeles artist"?

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RAY: I like Los Angeles a lot, but I think sometimes geography isn’t the most interesting way to think about art and artists. I would consider myself more an American artist. I moved here in ’81, and I felt really weird. I always thought I would never come here, and I was never interested in Los Angeles per se. I was on the East Coast, and I got a job teaching at UCLA, and I felt a little out of sorts. I was nervous about the whole situation: There was already kind of an established group here. On the one hand you had the end of the finish-fetish stuff [a school of L.A. art emphasizing slick surfaces and bright colors — think Billy Al Bengston], then you had Chris Burden, who had established himself as the strongest artist here, and Mike Kelley was doing stuff, and I sort of felt like I didn’t fit into what was going on. It didn’t bother me, because I’d never originally thought that I’d stay that long. But I liked it here. I grew up in an American suburb, so I’m ä very used to the feel of this city — I find it very comforting. I find the grid very easy to move around in. I find a city like New York, or some European cities, very intimidating. They’re more centralized, with the curvy streets and the bigger buildings — I get kind of overwhelmed. Pedestrian cities I don’t like so much; I like automobile cities.

Your Unpainted Sculpture has quite an immaculate surface, and the finish-fetish thing came partly out of the car culture of the ’60s, with the cherry —

I never really thought of the surfaces as "cherry," I thought of them as . . . I don’t know what. It gets really complicated, but I’ve thought of the sculptures as being embedded in kind of a hallucinatory space. It’s like "hyper" rather than "cherry." They’re not really finish-fetish, but they need to be immaculate in a sense. For instance, if you have an alteration of scale, or work embedded in this kind of hallucinatory relationship with the viewer, and there’s a mar on it, you can’t alter the scale. You can’t alter the scale of a scuff. A scuff’s a scuff. It’s never multidimensional, it’s simply here in this dimension. I’m not so involved in work that is about just this dimension. I’m less interested in the work as images in a way. I think when they get banged up they can be more imagistically read, like big Barbie dolls or something.

  • At MOCA and beyond

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