Los Angeles

Charles Ray

Despite Californian I tires and Pontiac Grand Am brand name; despite engine parts, damaged gas tank cover, and crushed grille; despite muffler and exhaust pipe, chassis and axle, glove compartment and cup holders; despite four doors, four wheels, and decal announcing “Jesus is Lord”—Unpainted Sculpture, 1997, is not a car. Somehow casting in fiberglass all the elements of a totaled car removes them from car-ness just enough to raise questions about what it is, how it works, and how meaning attaches to it. The wreck is an accidental intersection of time, space, and material, which might make it the ghost of a car, a perverse ideal, or an overwhelming something by someone (Charles Ray) who is amazed and tormented by the real.

Ray has been documenting collisions of matter and meaning most of his career, which is why his work is on intimate terms with the body, that slow field of projections, perceptions, and stupid wonders constantly colliding with the world. Unpainted Sculpture has little to do with his overscaled toy Firetruck, 1993, but it is intricately related to his furiously spinning wall-bound disk, Rotating Circle, 1988, about which he has said: “I wanted it to be so pure that it would both include and exclude everything. It would be so abstract it would become real or so real it would become abstract.” Model Tatjana Patitz—the obscure object of desire in another work by Ray—is a similar collision: it must be an accident that someone who looks like the most beautiful woman in the world exists.

Moving around Ray’s wreck fucks with perception: even without the scale of the car having been tweaked, the piece still makes you ponder the size of cars and bodies. The fiberglass softens sharp edges; at times the work looks like it could have been poured of cream. Unpainted Sculpture is painted—a monochromatic primer gray, which flattens yet highlights formal qualities and textural differences—and with this coat Ray emphasizes the practice of sculpture as unpainting (non-painting), abandoning what could have been the sexy shininess of trompe l’oeil metal for the seductions of the matte.

The brilliance of Unpainted Sculpture has nothing to do with John Chamberlain’s work. It does relate to some of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures (in its meditation on how softening transforms an object). Ray also reveals the vehicular energy of certain works of Anthony Caro (it is tempting to pursue the anagrammatic relation: Caro, O Car!). In Clock Man, 1978, Ray gauged the hours of the day using his body as timepiece. Here he continues and darkens his insistence upon and use of the figure (how the body exists in and as time). Unpainted Sculpture is a slow thing, and its beauty and mystery suggests that the truism of Angelenos going nowhere fast may be a perceptual mistake: they’re actually going somewhere undetermined, very slowly. The sculpture retains the impact of a crash somehow still happening; the fanning separation of the driver’s-side door and the folds of the hood hold all of the motion that brought them to this point. Whatever sculptural precedents it may have (Oldenburg, Caro), Ray’s work slows down perception so that we can understand, fear, see quotidian motions, in a manner weirdly similar to the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge.

In a recent catalogue for a show of his sculptural works, Ray included photographs with captions (parts of projects not pursued or “drawings” for works in progress). One of the most engaging is a photo of a car in motion shot from the driver’s window. We see another car in the lane ahead, the freeway divider, and in the background more cars moving in the other direction; but in the driver’s-side rearview mirror nothing is visible but sky and landscape, clouds above a rugged mountain. The two views are one, and reveal the moment of the connected transitiveness of where you have been, where you are, and where you might be going. The caption reads: “This picture diagrams the structure of an idea.” The idea, I think, has to do with how everything and its opposite exist in the world, the fact that the world itself exists, and how this allows beauty to happen, even when it shouldn’t or can’t.

Andy Warhol’s disaster series denied the documentary by repeating the image, the repetition making meaning skid. Ray’s new work relates to Warhol’s only in the way that they relate to America’s autoeroticism, the thrill of being on the road. Unpainted Sculpture, like Rotating Circle, includes, excludes, and abstracts itself. It is a wreck, and it has little to do with wrecks; it is a commentary on and memorial to Los Angeles as a city structured by speed and impact, and it is also just about how form, material, space, and time collide. The strangeness of Ray’s assured, odd masterpiece is that while it makes one question what is expected of art, it is just that. Art totals the real, which is why we like it and why we look—why we can’t help looking.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.