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The Charles Ray Experience

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"?

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.

 

Do you think fine art has a connection to what’s going on in a broader social sense? In terms of the whole culture, the way movies do?

I think movies are fine art. But like art that I make? Museum art, gallery art? Yeah. I think it can. I don’t think it necessarily does, but it can. The beauty to me about films is that they show people how to do things like drive or kiss a girl or handle a broom or leave a room, y’know — behave. I think Greek statuary at one point did something kind of similar. Look at this statue of a Greek boxer. This is a beautiful piece, because it’s actually feinting to the left. So you know that people looked to learn how to fight. This art is so cinematic in a way: How do you hold a sword? It’s like how we learn how to drink a glass of wine or drive a car or have sex. Where else do you learn to do that? You learn it at the movies, I think. On TV, from visual narratives. That’s so beautifully embedded in something so close you can’t even see it. It’s so important, so tied into who we are — it’s really kind of wonderful.

Do you see your work as doing that?

No.

Teach people to see connections?

Yeah, read connections. I think really good work does do something — transports people, stops time, takes them someplace and makes them think about things. Another space. Hopefully people get something of this. I think of myself as a sculptor, trying to make sculptures. I think it has more to do with who I am and where I came from than how relevant fine art is. I didn’t really have the opportunity to think when I was 20, "Is this really a relevant thing to do?" I tumbled into it. I was good at physical sports, but I didn’t know how to write. I didn’t know how to express myself verbally. I went through school kind of dyslexic, just fumbling around. This military school I went to held a formal syntax for me, an understanding that you can break a rule if you can replace it right away with a new one, which was similar to abstract formal sculpture in a way. I ended up in college, in a situation with a mentor. And all of a sudden, from my previous background, I tumbled into [art], and it was the first time in my life that I could actually intellectually express myself. Both physically and through some kind of syntax. I couldn’t do that before, so I wasn’t thinking, "Is this relevant?" or "How does this compare to cinema?" It was just "Whoaa! Finally I can say something! This is working for me!" and off it sort of went.

The military school — what was that like?

It was the most horrible . . . for four years I lived in a room with 40 kids. [Ray pulls out his yearbook.] It looks a little better here. It was a lot worse than it looks.

Everyone’s smiling. How did you do there?

Terribly.

Did you immediately turn into a hippie when you got out?

I didn’t, because it was already over by ’68, you could say. I’m sort of depressed about that.

Still?

I guess I’m still. I never was a hippie really.

You must have grown your hair out a bit.

Oh yeah. After I got out of there it got really long. I took some drugs in there, and that helped.

In the military school? Alone?

I first took LSD there. I took it at night, after taps, and lay in my bunk all night. You had a locker and a bench. You will not find one chair in that book.

Here’s Jimmy Durante!

That’s just a bunch of bullshit. He was doing some fund-raising gig in the next room — I wasn’t there, this is what I heard — so they got him to come in and say something.

How did you wind up there, anyway?

My sister was born schizophrenic. It was just a difficult family upbringing. And they didn’t institutionalize her until later, when she was in puberty. But me and my brother got institutionalized in stead, basically. So [my parents] could deal with it.

 

Is anyone else in your family schizophrenic?

It’s not schizophrenic — that’s such a generic term — she’s autistic. But not really autistic. She was just born crazy. She’s really . . . far out. But smart. She had an imaginary dog whose name was Air. Pretty nice: Air.

What was the idea behind your homemade clothes?

I was just really depressed. I was interested in the idea as self-portraiture. Am I the armature for the clothes, or are the clothes really the armature for me? I was really interested in the idea of arma ture in sculpture, and how every idea and every thing has an armature, and it’s really tricky to try and locate where the armature is. I think it’s a really, really important thing. The homemade clothes was going to be a public sculpture, like the Firetruck and the Turning Trees were public ideas, except the clothes’ public location was in the cinema, in a public theater. Called Self Portrait With Homemade Clothes, it was to be embedded as a two-minute trailer with the [regular] trailers. I was going to make my own glasses and shoes, and down in the studio I was cobbling my own shoes, and grinding my own lenses, but it became too much about that feat, and the craft. I wanted to bring it to where it was more about the girl in me. The genre of the girls when I was a kid and [my] older cousins made their own clothes. It was about entering that genre a little bit. Not that I’m girly or something.

Feminist artist?

There’s things that for me . . . yeah, sure, certain aspects . . . could be feminist. Things about it I understand.

What about psychological content? While making a piece like Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley . . . you’re not blind to the fact that it’s going to have at least a profoundly unnerving effect on some people.

But the process by which Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley . . . actually came about was much less psychological than you think, y’know? I think of it more as a flat and lonely piece rather than erotically charged. It’s really flat, nothing’s revealed; I’m masturbating. You don’t know what my preferences are. You don’t know what I’m thinking of. At first it looks as if I’m really vulnerable — this has been carried through lots of work, even back in the early pieces where I used my body, like the Shelf piece. You walk into the room and I look really vulnerable. But I’m not. It’s so set off that nothing of me becomes revealed. In Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley . . . there’s nothing revealed about me. You don’t know me any better. You know, I make it, it’s a big sex orgy, and then you see it. You see nothing. Family Romance and Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley . . . , to me, are similar problems: How, in this day and age, do you make a group figurative sculpture? Art is this dialectic between the abstraction and the image. I’m interested in it working as a sculpture, in how the forms look put together. I think it had all the stuff under the surface because it was a good sculpture. But I didn’t build this around it to bring these things out — I would have rejected and not finished it if it didn’t have those, but I think it’s part of the process. Time is part of the problem — to make a real formal baroque sculpture in 1998. That’s what I wanted to do. It’s fuckin’ hard.


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