Interview - Charles Ray

Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran

Interview held on 21st June, 2006 – in New York

GBK: In the beginning we were talking about staging a retrospective of your work and then you came up with the idea of doing an exhibition in black and white.

CR: I think that the idea of a retrospective was too expansive for me, too big for me to take on. It’s just really draining…or at least this was my experience with the two principle retrospectives I’ve dealt with to date, the travelling one that began at the Rooseum-Center for Contemporary Art in Malmø [1994] and lastly the one that Paul Schimmel organized at MOCA Los Angeles [1998-99].

To address your question, I was looking for a way to focus. You and I were talking about the catalogue – how to simplify it – and someone suggested the idea of a restrained book just in black and white where I wouldn’t have to worry about colour corrections and all those intricacies. And then it hit me: why not make the whole exhibition in black and white? It was just a way to grapple with your proposal and reduce it. So the idea caught my fancy and I began thinking about what could then be constructed. It seemed a nice way to build an exhibition.

GBK: Could you tell us about the genesis of the Plank Pieces [1973]?

CR: I made them at the University of Iowa when I was a young student. I was trained by former students of Anthony Caro who were at the university, and one particular Englishman, Roland Brener. The training was fairly rigorous and I spent a lot of time in the studio sliding materials around until they locked together aesthetically. The activity was extremely physical: moving things around, standing back, reappraising. Other interests I had at that time were mounting climbing, sailing, physical sports. I’m not saying that the studio was a sport but it possessed a distinct physicality. Things were always falling down and it was thrilling for me.

So the Plank Pieces were a natural fit, and it was in the climate of the time to insert my body into the work – I was already there as an active person. InIowa, I had a big bathtub that I used to lie in it at night and think about my body in relationship to materials I was working with. In fact, this is where I conceptualized many of the structures. They represented an ongoing activity, and the unfinished works were like punctuation marks; elements got canalized from one piece to another. Nothing was permanent. It was the seventies, things were stacked, truth to materials and tension structures were the gospel, and we were heavily influenced by people like Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero. So it was very easy for me to just serve naturally, to let my body flow into the work.

GBK: They were very performative?

CR: I thought of them as sculptures.

GBK: Why did you choose to make them in black and white?

CR: You have to remember that at the time, the norm stipulated that documentary pictures were black and white. There was little thought behind this for us, especially not in college: if you were making prints you did them in black and white. Colour did, of course, exist, especially in film. But the necessary means to produce colour slides were scarce and prohibitively expensive. These were the rules of the game, and black and white photos, the logical consequence.

GBK: Was this the initial size [107.2 x 74.5 cm]?

CR: No, I enlarged them for exhibitions and I made editions of them years later.

GBK: There is a great sense of humour in these works.

CR: Sure, but they are a bit juvenile as well.

GBK: Was the humour intentional?

CR: There was no intention. I don’t start with an intention. I was blind and simply absorbed myself in work without knowing how things would evolve. It just happened, a process of allowing oneself to be in the work and refusing to edit anything out.

GBK: What can you tell us about the Ink Box [1986]?

CR: Well, I guess that is humorous as well.

GBK: Were you making fun of the minimalists?

CR: No, no. Not at all.

GBK: But you are using their forms to produce a different effect?

CR: It’s a pure form in a certain way. I inherited it from minimalism. The Ink Box came after other works I made like Viral Research [1986] and broke from a period in which I had reinstated my body again [such as At the Table and The Examination, both of 1984]. So the Ink Box continued this interest and presented a substitute for the body. Its original point of reference was the Iranian revolution. A few years before I made it, the Iranians had constructed a fountain of ‘blood’ – an absurdly tacky public monument that oozed red dye.  But it was a very reduced form, and quite interesting in fact. So my original idea was to play off of this structure and fabricate a red cube. I had previously done a similar piece in memory of Aldo Moro [In Memory of Moro, 1978] and I contemplated remaking this work but with red ink, red paint or something. But ultimately this didn’t seem reduced enough. To me, black is the artifice of the piece: it has to be black.

There are all kind of foils in the structure of the Ink Box – the allusion, the minimal quality, the layers hidden beneath the surface. And it’s all about the kinaesthetic feeling of wanting to know what it is, wanting to touch it, wanting to disrupt it. And that’s why it’s similar to Aluminium Girl [2003], a piece which really seems alive to me, as if it wants to walk out of the paint. At its essence, Ink Box questions many sculptural predispositions, but it doesn’t question the expressiveness of black ink. That is something that isn’t mine, it’s cultural, and I find that the work gets considerable momentum and power from that which lies outside of it. So for me the struggle is always:  how do you give the work more and more internal power?

GBK: Although it wears the language of minimalism I see it more in connection with the tautology of certain conceptual art.

CR: That’s interesting, but I don’t quite agree. I see these terms, instead, as tangential to my underlying interest in the uses and meanings of structure. Previously, I was working with found objects and I’ve always felt that the cube is a found object as well…

GBK: 7 ½ ton Cube [1990] is self-explanatory.

CR: At the same time it evades characterization. If we look at another work which is not in the show, like Oh! Charlie, Charlie, Charlie… [1992], people say: How can you do this? You’re giving it all away! But it gives nothing away. You have no idea of my sexual preferences, of what goes on in my mind. It’s a rather cruel joke where something that seems self-evident is, on a deeper level, wholly unclear. I think 7 ½ ton Cube indulges the structure, whereas Ink Box indulges the allusion. What does it mean to stand in front of a heavy thing that appears feeble?  

This surface play is similar to the Aluminium Girl and they are painted white for a very particular reason – and not just to accentuate the form. 7 ½ ton Cube is a structure, it is not a Serra piece – not a massive piece of lead or a rusty steel plate just sitting there. I’m not interested in fooling you either; I’m interested in enlivening the dialogue between the material and its surface. Thus Aluminium Girl, which is hard but soft (the result of using aluminium instead of bronze), possesses a flesh-like quality and emphasizes the figure’s stylization. As I said before, it’s almost as if she could step out of the paint.

GBK: But you cannot experience the 7 ½ ton Cube as such.

CR: I think you can: you can see it, feel it and hit it with your fist. The possibilities are endless, and where you place it is only the beginning.

GBK: Another box, 33x33x35=34x33x35 [1989], is more about perception.

CR: I was thinking of the mind/body problem, a projection on what would happen if you put a thought in a box. A thought obviously displaces matter: there is a physical displacement of how you think.

This is a very settled, subtle piece. A millimetre less, or a millimetre more makes all the difference. I spent a lot of time trying to get the exact dimensions and even built a fake cardboard floor in my studio to get it just right. Now I think it appears a little displaced – perhaps it even makes you slightly seasick to look at it.

I’m not interested in the illusion as such – the illusion is simply the structure of the piece. I’m more taken with illusions the way a magician might be: when he saws the lady in half, we know this is a farce, so for the trick to work there is an unspoken contract between magician and audience. It’s almost as if something has been signed, sealed and passed back and forth – that’s a social structure. In my use of illusion I’m keen on developing that model of sociability. That’s why the title is so clear…it functions like the contract, but one that does not close the structure, but leaves it open for perception and interpretation.

GBK: The titles of the box pieces are remarkably descriptive. One might even say that they define the works.

CR: They’re more like pop songs, aren’t they? Aluminium Girl would be a great Top 40 title; 7 ½ ton Cube, an ideal name for a poem. To me they are more intuitive than descriptive. Unpainted Sculpture is painted, it’s painted grey.

GBK: The Table [1990] also deals with the inner and outer space.

CR: The space flows through it. I like it because there is no internal aspect to any of the volumes. The space itself is just flowing. The world comes into it.

GBK: Is it a dysfunctional table, or has something changed?

CR: It’s not a table, it’s a structure embedded in space – and one you can’t navigate. I always thought it was one of my best works because you can’t just discuss it and put it in your pocket. It’s quiet, it’s hard to explain.

GBK: What are you exploring with these table variations?

CR: It’s extremely hard to put something in a room. Sculpturally speaking, it’s really one of the most difficult things to do. For me, the table functions as a substitute for the floor. Some of my interest in these tables relates to the still life: How many objects should be used for this particular structure? Where should the trajectories be? If you put three or four objects on a table, you instantly tell a story, especially when these gestures are formalized in the context of art where you’re trained to read a narrative in them. So the table pieces are really about how to remove the incipient idea and start reading a narrative. If we only produce references, or create story lines, the space will never flow through the objects. But that’s precisely where the artfulness comes into play for me…it’s all about locking down the still life and allowing space to flow through and to realign these stereotypical trajectories. 

GBK: Is that why they are transparent?

CR: No, more than that. That’s why there are an exact number of strategically placed objects on them. This dimension is not random and sometimes I may spend a year buying plexiglass objects, then arranging and rearranging them. It’s about gauging an equilibrium: How many should there be? How many to remove? How to engage their essential character? The sculpture may try to do one thing, but I want another. And the still life serves that: there is no secondary story in the still life. But it’s really hard to get that to happen, it’s wonderfully delicate. It’s somewhat similar to producing an outdoor sculpture – it’s very delicate to place a piece outdoors.

GBK: What about narratives in these works?

CR: They all can have narratives, but the narratives in the table pieces are not between the objects on the table; it’s between the still life, the structure and the table…a tri-dimensional relationship. There is no trajectory to this narrative in a traditional sense, and whatever stories may be implied certainly don’t have a beginning, middle and an end.  I see them in time but not about time.

GBK: You are preoccupied with geometry?

CR: I’m very interested in the geometry of viewing, the distance between one piece and the next. These conditions are the really interesting. When there is revolution, that’s what changes, not the fact that we go from a minimal cube to an image of a dog. If you look at Donald Judd and Duane Hanson, they actually produce very similar kinds of work. Both make you uncomfortable, both are similarly installed and both need the white box. Ultimately, Judd and Hanson activate a similar geometry of viewing.

GBK: Can you talk about how your aesthetic thoughts relate to your figurative works?

CR: The early mannequin pieces, of the late eighties and early nineties, were born of an interest in contemporary figuration…how they could as both contemporary idealization and figuration. And there are all kinds of interesting rules about that – rules that I never broke. For example, I never screw around with the vernacular of a mannequin, I only make specific adjustments: I put my head on one or my genitals on another. The Big Lady is 30% taller than she should be, but she holds true to the mannequin typology. 

Nowadays all figurations are called mannequins if they are painted. I think that’s wrong. I visited the Duane Hanson retrospective and was amazed to learn that they are calling those pieces mannequins because they most certainly are not. A mannequin indexes the department store and possesses very particular proportions. When mannequins shifted from papier maché to fibre glass in the fifties, Sears Roebuck in America developed a book that spelled out these characteristics and it remains an industry standard. The guide dictates the stylistic rules to the tiniest details: finger length, height, even the manner in which the eyes are to be painted. A mannequin can’t smile, you know, and its eyes are to be painted out: you can’t have eye contact with a mannequin because its very raison d’être is about you projecting yourself into the clothes. If a mannequin has any personality at all, it is very delicate. A child mannequin can smile – it is the only mannequin that can smile – because children don’t buy the clothes, parents do, and they want to purchase that which projects the child as being happy. For cultural reasons, I find this idealization absolutely amazing!

GBK: Is a work like Male Mannequin [1990] related to questions of identity?

CR: Certainly not identity politics. I never bought into consumer critique. The initial self portrait male mannequin, you could say, is reclaiming consumer space, erotically, through its physicality, its clumsiness. But I don’t intend to go deeper than this as a reserve of critique…if this structure produces meaning in a hundred years after identity politics is gone, then it will have succeeded 

GBK: Aluminium Girl is not a mannequin, it’s made from a real body.

CR: It started as a life-cast so there is a relationship between what has been stylized and what is natural. Very quickly, in fact, it became much more about this dynamic than portraiture as such; the interchange between stylization and the natural is, after all, what we locate in ourselves. So these structures intermingle with each other. I’m interested in this rapport in my figurative works. When I was finishing Aluminium Girl it occurred to me that it could be interesting to reduce my sculptural armature to the figure, a figure without objects – akin, for example, to how Judd reduced his interest to boxes as a way to streamline focus sculpturally. I’ve been thinking about that while making other figurative works as well.      

GBK: The Aluminium Girl is made of aluminium and then painted.

CR: This just came about by chance. It was a very fortuitous circumstance. First, I carved the piece in wood but I rejected this outcome almost immediately: it didn’t look right and I didn’t work on it for another year. Then when I was pouring the tractor in aluminium I gave the model to the founders and said let’s make it in aluminium as well. Aluminium is very soft so it doesn’t hold edges the way that bronze does. I think that’s what gives it its flesh, its body. The kinaesthetic aspect concerns the physicality of the piece, the biology, almost as if the aluminium could come to life. 

GBK: And then there is the Tractor [2004]. Were you looking for a tractor, or did you just stumble upon it?

CR: It found me. I was thinking about it for some time and then I encountered the one I was looking for.

GBK: After you located it, what were your thoughts about transferring it into an artwork?

CR: This evolution actually took quite some time. The piece started a number of years ago when I was trying to sculpt a jungle gym. At the time, I was thinking about civic space and had been working on an outdoor sculpture of a turning tree, similar to what I had done previously with the fire truck. Giacometti’s smaller pieces were also on my mind…

…So I was thinking about how the playground is really the first civic space where we encounter our peers, people we don’t know. I wanted to sculpt that space and I tried, but totally failed, to make a jungle gym. I kept running into genre problems. It started to look like a Sol LeWitt, or a constructivist sculpture. It looked like so many things, really, and just became a totally loaded undertaking. And just as I was creating mock-ups of this jungle gym, a childhood friend of mine told me to take a look at this tractor he knew about. I fell in love and was able to purchase and relocate it to my studio where we stared at, deconstructed and modelled it for five years. It took ages to make, and eventually became something else.

I think of the Tractor as a kind of machine in heaven. It was a dead, broken down tractor and later as an artwork, it could even be real the first time you see it shined up, sand blasted and cleaned. You perceive the piece very slowly and it’s only as you move into it that you realize it’s been hand-made. Originally, I thought that it would be more of a transparent object. I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I think it has a depth to it. Again, I also like that it’s aluminium, not bronze.

GBK: What is your relationship to Anthony Caro’s practice?

CR: Classic Anthony Caro pieces from the early sixties are about relationships of parts, dynamic sculptural equations, a kind of poetry of an overall shape or profile. Most of my work deals with one juncture or another. Where two elements come together you find meaning: in Family Romance [1993], it’s in the juncture of the hands; with 33x33x35=34x33x35, it’s the relationship between the box and the floor. These are the junctions where meaning develops, the intersections where the equations occur.

I have always been interested in structure, both internal and external, mind versus body. With the cubes, for example, this relationship transcends to where you are…it’s an internal feeling projected outside, all way up to this boy playing: the car is the external matrix and the boy is the internal one.

There is a tension in the body pieces, external/internal confrontation. You might even say that it’s psychoanalytical, that it’s about me. I don’t know. I’m always working on these equations, this relationship. The Big Lady does lot of things and she also rides the Freudian wave. That’s what I mean by external, something that everybody can appreciate…something that’s gestating in the communal subconscious. But ultimately it’s the Big Lady’s spatial relationships that I’m focusing on, not her symbolic status as a mother figure: when she is properly installed she is very tall and, upon approach, she almost appears normal – with the right mannequin proportions – but as you retreat across the space, she grows and you shrink.

The space she occupies is akin to Caro’s Early One Morning [1962] which functions like an accordion as you walk around it, expanding, contracting and playing with space really wonderfully. Sometimes, though, I wonder whether she’s too Freudian. Is her artifice based too overtly on this pretext? Retrospectively, we could maybe say that Boy Mannequin [1992] was a reflex to these shortcomings, a self-correction mechanism. Pieces like Oh! Charlie Charlie, Charlie… and Family Romance also seek to resolve some of these issues through the grouping of figurative sculptures, the repetition of my identity, the kinkiness of the sex. Each, of course, achieves its ends in a different way. The peculiarity of all these figures gripping each others’ hands in Family Romance is quite at odds, in fact, with the outright provocation and taboo-soliciting of Oh! Charlie Charlie, Charlie… But perhaps the most interesting thing about this latter sculpture – the most provocative, even – is the cement that holds it all together. Sculpturally speaking, I find real inspiration in this aspect.

Going back to your initial question, the black and white dynamic is not so obvious. Yet for me it’s pure potential. I couldn’t tell you the significance of this chromatic focus, but it’s carte blanche to enter and experiment with the context of doing a new exhibition…an invitation to realign hierarchies, to tweak preconceived agendas that I’m very much looking forward to.  

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