Monday, November 10, 2008
Charles Ray was born in Chicago. He studied sculpture at the University of Iowa with Roland Brener, who exposed Ray to many developments of Modernist sculpture, in particular the constructivist aesthetic of artists like Caro and David Smith. In an interview, Ray spoke of his artistic education and early influences.
"Caro’s work was like a template; I saw it as almost platonic. The formal rules as taught by Brener were a kind of nourishment for me. The actual working in the studio was, in a sense, the expression. I was taught that the finished sculpture was maybe the end of the paragraph. Once a sculpture was completed it was critiqued and put back on to the scrap pile. This way of working taught me to think sculpturally rather than to think about sculpture. At this time in my life the historical context of high Modernism was really beyond my grasp. I saw Caro as super-contemporary. His work was, and is, so alive. It bridges the gap between the inside and outside of my mind. "
Ray recapitulated many of the developments in twentieth-century sculpture in his first show in 1971 with an installation entitled One-Stop Gallery. The show was comprised of a collection of small sculptures, resting directly on floor. Some of the works, in their attention to materials, were clearly inspired by Minimalist artists like Robert Morris, while two small constructed steel sculptures invoke the traditions taught by his teacher, Brener; they were even painted the same red as Caro’s Early One Morning (1962, Tate Modern). One-Stop Gallery would anticipate the tone for much of Ray’s work to come in its plumbing and reinterpreting of the canon of twentieth-century sculpture without having his own work appeal to any particular period or style.
Ray’s work is difficult to classify. Style, materials, subject, presence, and scale are all variable. What is consistent is as critic Anne Wagner put it, “In all his seamlessly executed objects, Ray fixates on how and why things happen, to say nothing of wondering what really does happen in the field of vision, and how such events might be remade as art.” This and the level of art historical awareness behind his works has led many critics to call Ray a sculptor’s sculptor. Nevertheless, his art has managed to find a large audience, thanks in part to its often striking or beguiling nature. His most recent work is marked by its extreme labor-intensiveness. With Hinoki (2007, Art Institute of Chicago), Ray had a mold made of a large rotting tree he found in California. He then hired a team of Japanese woodcarvers to essentially re-carve the tree in Japanese cypress (hinoki), a different wood than that of the original tree. In a forthcoming interview, Ray made it clear that the purpose of the piece was not to photorealistically carve an exact replica of the tree. “The tree had that beautiful interior that fallen logs have,” he says. “It happens when bugs eat out the hard wood, so you have this hollow thing. All I knew was that I wanted to carve that, I wanted them to have a sense of that interior [of the log] because it’s in there, even if normally it couldn’t be seen. So that was really important. And then I became involved with the outside as well…It mattered to me that somebody had looked at it, and I wanted to make it matter to you.” Hinoki took four years to carve of what was a ten year project: from the initial discovery of the tree in 1997-1998 to its exhibition in 2007.