contribution to the 2010 Whitney Biennial catalogue
Charles Ray, Untitled, 2009
In sharp contrast to Andy Warhol’s well-known flower silk screens of the 1960s, wherein a photograph of a hibiscus blossom is abstracted and morphed into one highly saturated image to be repeated in two-tone variations against a tangle of articulated Photo-Realist undergrowth, Charles Ray’s foppish ink on paper drawings of flowers (2005-06) seem assembled in parts, brought repeatedly to the point of touching or gathering into a bountiful bunch only to be kept ever separate. Approaching a caricature of the anthropomorphic with their splayed postures of hesitancy and curiosity, Ray’s floral studies reiterate a boundary that often recurs in his work as humans are positioned before but distanced from nature, awakened and attuned to the archaic cycles of life but tantalizingly incapable of wresting an idealized form or representative figuration. Disarticulated and reticent, each flower in Ray’s bouquets stands as a fanciful specimen—isolated in distinctive gesture and coloration.
As with the artist’s oft-mentioned early interest in Anthony Caro’s sculpture, the importance of juncture and the relationship of parts—one element next to or alongside another—remains a constant tension here and in much of Ray’s work, extending in many cases to the viewer’s role in a given scenario. This is the case, for example, with Ink Box (1986), Rotating Circle (1988), and Ink Line (1988), where the seemingly benign and finely crafted presence of a singular, uninterrupted object or form reveals itself to be an element set in constant motion or a precariously positioned volume ready to wreak havoc should the viewer inspect the illusion. Making use of the viewer’s urge to grasp and apprehend an appearance of neutral perfection, Ray plays off the psychology of desire as provocation.
Recent works, however, evince a shift away from manufacturing ruptures in the present to looking back at moments of stilled transformation and metamorphosis. Chicken (2007), for example, depicts a baby bird on the precipice of being, held in between the pacific comfort of the embryo and the stark glare of the future—an impossible pause in the life cycle underscored by the finely detailed porcelain contour of the small-scale sculpture, its machined white surface, and the perfectly circular aperture through which the viewer glimpses the withheld life-form. Similarly drained of color, The New Beetle (2007), shown opposite the hatchling, configures a nostalgic life-size sculpture of a boy absorbed in pushing a toy car. The object of his affection appears conjoined with his body—blissfully contiguous—until one notices how the car is modeled on the New Beetle (the Volkswagen-branded car reintroduced to consumers in the late 1990s) and rendered with greater detail and care than the boy’s attentive smile, severing the romantic illusion and presenting instead the gesture of oneness as a moment irrevocably past. Not unlike Ray’s flowers, a seemingly idyllic form is unsettled and made strange.