Charles Ray

Charles Ray’s retrospective, though beautiful, was somewhat too select. In the Swiss staging of the show (which originated at the Rooseum in Malmo), few works were exhibited, despite an abundance of space. Ray is one of the most intriguing artists working today, and he has been largely underestimated, particularly before his works appeared at the last Documenta. His work investigates the connections between artistic production and social relationships.

As Bruce W. Ferguson’s lengthy catalogue essay points out, today’s most typical interpretive categories are easily adapted to Ray’s work, even though he began working back in 1973. Ray attempts to expose the idolatry of rationality, the authoritarian aspects of Modernist artistic ideology, particularly in the desexualized (male) abstraction of Minimalism. The corporeality of Ray’s performances and photographs from 1973, along with his sculptures from the early ’80s, where the human body entered the work in an almost grotesque manner, oppose these more austere cultural elements. In this way the artist has parodied logocentrism and its embodiment by the male subject. These sculptures, as Ferguson very correctly states, look neither to the past nor to the future, but thematize the present, understood in its immediate dramatic precariousness as the absence of a foundation.

Ray does not simply polemicize against particular artistic or ideological movements, rather he counters the severity of disembodied ideas with what he sees as the aleatory nature of life. He also reexamines life, seeing it not as a dimension that is liberated in itself, but rather as something that is individuated from the behavioral stereotypes that typically govern it. His use of shop-window mannequins provokes the image of the fragmented and reproduced body represented in consumer gadgets, where identity is reflected in a hyperreal mirror, creating a highly conventional image. He further sees life as an inexorable source of perceptual deceptions and forged proportions, of duplicities applied to logic and emotionality.

Ray works with the concept of perturbation, and he applies the unfamiliar to the familiar, following an astute strategy, but also practicing a rhetoric based on shock. Consequently, there are clever works of his that play with attempts at perception that, in the end, make everything seem normal: the table holding objects that revolved with an almost spasmodic slowness so that everything seemed immobile; the black cube that was really a container filled to the brim with ink; the female mannequin, enlarged by 30 percent, that, according to Ray, asks us to relive our experience as babies in the presence of the “great mother”; the narcissistic orgy; or Family Romance, 1992–93, testimony to the commonplace turned into a paradox. These works were seen earlier in Kassel and at the Whitney, but they are still disturbing.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.