Charles Ray


Charles Ray had planned to show three pieces here, but problems with installation reduced the show to one: a single spinning disc of cast aluminum set flush in a false floor that was constructed in the front half of the gallery. This fortuitous circumstance showed the piece to best advantage, allowing it—even in its virtual invisibility—to activate the entire space. Ray’s work could, I suppose, be read simply as a technical tour de force. But the degree of fascination it provokes justifies a more complicated reading, connecting it to the current exploration of the commodity fetish in art. Because Ray does not make objects, he avoids the problematic stance of work that both critiques and participates in a commodity status. Instead, he explores the effects of a pervasive visual logic that transforms the fluid and indeterminate world into a static collection of discrete and rigid objects to be possessed, controlled, and exchanged—a sort of perceptual capitalism.

Here, Ray referred to the commodifying gaze—the look that freezes life or motion into stone—without falling subject to it. Steps led up to the false floor, a gray platform that easily passed as permanent split-level gallery architecture. The only inflections in this seemingly still and empty space were the outline of a small circle incised in the floor, 20 inches in diameter, and a loud, unlocatable roar. The circle, which on close inspection appeared a smoother, more perfect gray than the painted wood around it, spun at 3,500 rpm, a speed that homogenizes imperfections and visually transforms rapid motion into its opposite: stasis and (illusory) calm.

Except for the distracting roar of the motor, this installation was less viscerally sensational than some of Ray’s earlier work, in which he incorporated human beings as structural and compositional elements of wall supports and shelving. But it carried similar implications. Like Gordon Matta-Clark’s tunneling down through the gallery floor, 1977, Ray’s destabilization of a section of floor called attention to the gallery as a physical structure, as a container and a support for human bodies which then become objects to be contained and supported. To step onto that wheeling disc seemed to mean violent disorientation, sudden loss of support. Such a false step might present a real physical danger, or perhaps its worst effect would have been to destroy the delicate technical precision necessary to create the illusion. Either is less important than the implication of instability that the small, seemingly immobile disc transferred to the surrounding floor. What looked calm and secure was in reality an element of contained frenzy held in place solely by the strength of illusion. Ray tempts the viewer with the precariousness of that illusion. In another recent piece, he engineered a continuous stream of black ink to fall from a dime-size hole in the ceiling through a nickel-size hole in the floor, its flow so consistent as to look like a solid column of blackened steel. Both this and the illusion of the “still” circle would require only a small movement on the part of the viewer to be spoiled. But to interfere with the illusion would be to unleash chaos, violent energies, uncontrollable consequences. (The black printer’s ink, a medium that Ray uses again and again in precarious situations, carries its own specific threat to the traditional neutral whiteness of gallery walls.) Here, I found myself eagerly staring for a glitch or wobble that would visually upset the illusion and confirm my intellectual understanding of what was really going on, but all I got was a frustratingly even blur. In James Turrell’s atmospheric rooms, the casual gesture of a hand easily penetrates the illusion of a two-dimensional plane while the space remains physically intact. In Ray’s work, interference involves violence, a violence that we are teased to imagine if not enact.

Laurie Palmer