Charles Ray - Contemporary Art Part I New York Monday, November 8, 2010 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    Charles Ray doesn’t really create forms but he isn’t an appropriationist either. He manipulates existing forms and figures like altered readymades, or quotes. His practice is a cycle of reprises. And with these borrowed and renewed elements he creates spectacular surprises, sensations through a play of materials, and an unexpected manipulation of weight, size and perception. Ray’s art is endlessly witty and his work is at once extremely funny, tragic-comic and beautiful. (Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art)
    Charles Ray is widely regarded as one of the most significant artists of his generation and has had a unique position within contemporary art over the last 30 years.  Rich in art historical references, his works also distinguish themselves through their inimitable originality.  Intrigued by the artistic language and practice of Anthony Caro, from the intersection of different elements within a work to a work’s relationship with its context, Wet Paint exemplifies the way in which Ray has skillfully worked through the legacy of minimalism in pursuit of extra-formalistic potentialities.  “Over the years Ray has often spoken of an art that can jerk one’s head around – of making objects and creating situations that are not what they appear to be and that force us to re-examine the validity of the truths we garner from perceptual experience.  Ray takes the bedrock of reality, whether something as abstract as a cube or as concrete as a human figure, and then twists, tweaks, and jerks it until it tugs at the reality of what one thinks one knows.  In so doing, Ray unsettles the viewer’s very state of being, for he shows that perception reveals reality to be not immutable but in a constant state of flux” (P. Schimmel, “Beside One’s Self,” Charles Ray, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 60).
    Though small, Ray’s oeuvre is profoundly powerful.  As an art student in the 70s, he began experimenting with his own body in a kind of performance sculpture.  He continued this practice into the Eighties, gradually moving away from performance and parlaying his interest in sculptural properties – scale, gravity, illusion and weight – into meditations on the presence of sculpture itself.  Sculpture is not static and idealized for Ray, but a temporal medium.  All of his work comes out of what he calls “the wildness of the event.”  Even when he works with imagery, he is thinking about the relationship between people and things, bodies and objects.  Figure and experience are key.  Ray has said that for him, “sculpture is a verb.”  His work has strong affinities with process art – like that of Richard Serra, who in 1967 through 1968 compiled a list of verbs (“to roll, to crease to fold…”) that he went on to use as the basis of actual sculpture.
    Becoming something of a sculptor’s sculptor, Ray’s works operate within the space of art in the form of art about art.  In fact, space has always been at the center of Charles Ray’s art practice; “Not only physical space…but also that which slops and fizzes between what we think we know and what is, and between what we expect and what we get” (T. Morton, “The Shape of Things,” Frieze, November-December 2007, pp. 120-127).  Visitors to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, for instance, were surprised by a large fire truck parked on the street at the entrance of the museum.  Though from a distance it looked like the real thing, upon closer inspection the reality shifted: Firetruck was something else, a child’s Tonka toy fire truck scaled-up to life-size.  Initially, Ray explains, he “saw the piece trying to do something to the space of the city.  The equation was going to go two ways.  It was like a toy becoming a real truck, and when you looked at it, a real truck becoming a toy.  It wasn’t like an Oldenburg blow-up because it blew up to its right size rather than to a gigantic size.  It was kind of about trying to turn the whole city into a kind of weird toy.” (R. Storr, “Anxious Spaces,” Art in America, November 1998, pp. 101-105).  Similarly, with a nod to more classical Greek sculpture, is his eight foot tall sculpture of a boy holding a frog prominently situated outdoors on the very tip of the Punta della Dogana on Venice’s Grand Canal.  With Boy with Frog, Ray seems to be saying, "Modern art is over, so I’m retrieving familiar forms and techniques to make something old new again" (J. Saltz, “Entropy in Venice,” Artnet Magazine).
    Created in 1986, Ray’s Ink Box can be seen to inform the present piece in terms of its diverse art historical references and artistic self-reflexivity.  For this work, Ray created a black box with an open top filled to the brim with two hundred gallons of printer’s ink, the color, texture and reflectivity of which exactly corresponded to the sides of its container.  What Ray had created here was an illusion of stability and solidity, a work that combined with such simplicity and clarity aspects of the artist’s formal training with his interest in both the participatory and the performative.  Not unlike his earlier performative sculptures, this work “has a life of its own – a fulfillment of Ray’s desire to make a sculpture that did not require his direct participation and that would still “come out of the notion of event.” (P. Schimmel, “Beside One’s Self,” Charles Ray, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 80).
    Like Ink Box, Wet Paint reflects Ray’s interest in Minimalism, performance and in the relationship of people to things.  In Wet Paint, Ray has removed the actual danger of the viewer getting paint (ink) on them and replaced it with the psychological threat of wet paint and a hyperawareness of the wall of which the work has become a part.  The literal reference to paint on the surface of his painting is both ironic and self-reflexive for the only paint used in this work is white; the forms are described in relief as opposed to the paint itself reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s white paintings in which the surface was defined by shadows. 
    Like Jasper John’s Paint Brushes, the work calls attention to itself as art through its reference to paint, art about art.  As with many of Ray’s later works, Wet Paint makes use of an image from mass culture and prompts the inevitable associations with Pop Art.  “What Pop Art shares with Minimalism, of course, is an interest in the readymade.  Ray extends this tradition: his subject matter is highly inflected like Pop Art, but his presentation is obdurate and standardized in the Minimalist mode.” (P. Schimmel, “Beside One’s Self,” Charles Ray, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 101).  Here Ray has objectified the artistic gesture in the same way that Lichtenstein solidified the brushstroke in Brushstroke, the fundamental element of painting in sculptural form.  It is this contradiction between readymade form and personal content that gives his work such great tension and expressive power.  Wet Paint, above all, “takes conventions, whether they are from art history or the shop window, and uses them to re-present identity and perception as coded assumptions that can be destabilized with disturbing ease by [Ray’s] deadpan reconfigurations” (C. Grove, Grove Art Online, 2009).


Wet Paint

Modified gypsum plaster, plastic and fiberglass.
33 x 26 in. (83.8 x 66 cm).
This work is from an edition of three.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $422,500

Contemporary Art Part I

8 November 2010
New York