Friday, September 11, 2015

Charles Ray at the Art Institute of Chicago

New, but traditional, classical figure sculpture has intermittently been fashionable over the past two millennia. Formality (Maillol) followed melodrama (Carpeaux) in it’s previous two iterations. An intensely expressive Romanticism (Rodin) spun off between them. In the intervening century, the human figure was first excoriated, and then celebrated, as kitsch. But now, aided by digitized tools of photo-fabrication, a new version of timeless, idealized naturism has emerged through the application of a kind of three-dimensional photography. Thanks to the camera’s instantaneous capture of image, the sculptor can accurately record brief gestures made by anyone, including children and other non-professional models. The artist can then develop a kind of formal style through software manipulation, leading directly to mechanical fabrication.

Ray’s “Huck and Jim” demonstrates both the advantages and limitations of this process. Overall, the piece has the natural elegance of young bodies. It’s surrounding spaces have been as carefully measured as the dynamic Chicago skyline that stands behind it in this Modern Wing exhibition. It invites a calm meditation on the relationship between these iconic figures of American literature , effectively conflating the two prominent moral concerns of the academic humanities: gender identity and racism. But in detail, it has no more aesthetic impact than the anthropological displays at the Field Museum. Ray has focused his attention on the surface. His forms have no inner life.

A similar sense of peaceful naturalism, measured space, and cultural dialogue is found in Ray’s other monumental standing figure, “Boy with Frog”. Originally commissioned for Punta Della Dogana in Venice, the figure’s boyish curiosity nicely complemented the dragon-killing St. Theodore high on a column across the Grand Canal. But like jokes, editorials, and academic essays, it’s impact does not extend into multiple viewings. It’s not surprising that the City of Venice removed it from one of the world’s greatest public spaces.

Ray’s crouching or reclining figures are far less stimulating, though, like his monumental double-portrait relief in tribute to Alex Katz, they still proclaim a new Classicism, while engaging the tropes of the contemporary artworld in one way or another. Hardly an improvement or compelling interpretation of the originals, his monumental still lifes are grandiose exercises in futility. They serve as metaphors for our moribund civilization, as they meticulously copy enormous decaying objects. Such pessimism has been  standard fare in museums of contemporary art ever since they first opened.

But the institutional success of Ray’s standing figures may be ushering in a new wave of classical sculpture. If only other artists will have the desire, and then the ability, to make the new tools of fabrication serve a more dynamic sculptural expression.



This is the cover of the  May/June edition of the Member Magazine of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It is probably the first time that images of anything like contemporary classical sculpture have appeared anywhere in that publication for at least fifty years. .

The museum also created a promotional video for the show.

Why have museum officials  promoted this exhibit so  strongly, and kept it on display for nearly 5 months ?

Perhaps because they believe that it might reconcile the contemporary with the classical.  Calvin Tomkins, the New Yorker's long-time chronicler of iconic contemporary artists, tells us that "Few artists have mined the history of sculpture more deeply than Ray.  He wants to renew traditions, not  just to borrow from them".. while in the video mentioned above,  Ray himself tells us how he wants to makes surfaces that are timeless: "everything I've said is going to be washed away, and what's going to be left is the art part".

But as Tomkins also relates, a pivotal mentor in Ray's art education once told him: "That sculpture you made today was very interesting spatially.  But those wheels - they looked like flowers in a still life. It shows me you want to make something, instead of discovering something.  Don't ever do that in my class again" -- and  Ray took this lesson to heart : "It changed my life -- I've thought about it ever since, the difference between making and discovering"

When all contemporary ideas have been washed away by time, can such an approach to art-making ever leave anything behind worth looking at?