I cannot recommend highly enough the Charles Ray retrospective, Sculpture, 1997–2014, in the Modern Wing of Art Institute Chicago until October 4. Photography was not allowed inside the exhibit, so you will have to let me tease you with these photos of the promotional banners. Trust me — they don’t do the show justice.
The exhibit focuses primarily on the artist’s figurative sculptures. Ray uses computer programs and a full crew of assistants to create these life-replicas. His embracing of commercial techniques and team of workers reminds me of the art practices of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. He apparently spent twenty-five years working in solitude as a Minimalist before discovering this methodology.
The astonishing thing is how Ray’s cutting edge methods result in Classical-looking pieces of timeless beauty. His process perhaps improves upon the old hammer-and-chisel method by capturing minute nuances of his subjects. They appear almost too real to be believed, too lifelike. You could swear you are looking at living people covered in white or silver paint. The only times you know you are looking at sculpture are when you are viewing a relief, or when Ray is playing with scale, as in the eight-foot-tall Boy with Frog. Even then, the details are startling — like nothing you’ve ever seen.
I was disappointed to see a disclaimer posted at the entrance to the exhibit stating that the work might not be appropriate for all ages. There were also motion-activated alarms set to keep viewers far away from the pieces, apparently to prevent vandalism. I was aware of controversy at past exhibits of Ray’s works, but I had hoped we Chicagoans were smarter than that. I assume that people are once more concerned about the fact that several of the pieces depict nudes. Really, people. We’re all naked under our clothes. It’s no big deal.
I can’t help but think people are freaking out because of a strange double standard that exists: many people consider female nudity artful, but they deem male nudity obscene. All but one of the nudes represent males, and Ray’s triumph of realism includes his subjects’ genitals. For Ray, there is none of the Greek stylization that makes old sculptures of men look strangely de-sexed. Rather, his sculpted scrotums hang the way real scrotums do; his sculpted testicles will drape against their owner’s leg the way real ones will; and the circumcised penises he fashions wrinkle the way real ones do. Ray doesn’t hold back in depicting nature exactly as it is, and there is no reason he should.
I should also note that there’s nothing you can see here — except perhaps in the degree of realism — that you won’t behold anywhere else in the museum. Art Institute Chicago, and indeed all great houses of art, are full of depictions of nude men and women, nude babies and Christ children, nude gods and goddesses, nude angels and putti. And there’s no warning sign posted outside all the other rooms, because we don’t need them. We know not to be shocked by traditional nudes. Why, then, the outrage over contemporary nudes? Ray and many others are continuing a fine tradition.
In my opinion, one of the great functions of art is to make a record of nature as we perceive it, including ourselves as human beings. Art has the power to capture who we are at a given moment, and to make a statement that lasts longer than the people who proclaimed it. I hope Charles Ray’s work stands the test of time and outlasts all the reactionary prudes who wish to decry it, because I would be proud to include it in our official record of humanity. There are some touching themes in his work that the stubbornly ignorant will never see, including the fragility of life, the unavoidable reality of the homeless, and the fleeting charm of childhood, immortalized in painted steel.