by Jonathan Griffin
I tend to think—and this can change—that the subject of the work is the dynamic of the confrontation with the work. And by that I don’t mean that the sculpture is aggressive, but that you’re wrestling with it into the world. How is the piece in the world? And, for me to think about that, I have to ask myself, “How am I in the world? How do I think of myself? How do other people think of me?”
– Charles Ray, Three Lectures at the Menil Collection
Earlier this year, I stood in front of Charles Ray’s newest work, Two horses (2019), at Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles. The piece is hewn from a single, six-ton slab of rippling dark Virginia Mist granite, 14 feet wide and 10 feet high, mounted seamlessly on a pristine white wall. In shallow relief, a horse—unsaddled, unharnessed—is depicted in proud profile, its hind leg raised as if stepping forward into its ghost: a fainter relief, imperceptible at first, of another nearly identical horse, offset just a few inches ahead. The show was called “Two Ghosts.”
As we’ve been taught to read Ray—and as he himself has often reminded us—what the work literally depicts is rarely its actual subject. So I asked myself what this humungous rectangle of carved granite, reminiscent of paintings found in dusty English country houses but surely destined for the halls of one of the world’s most well-endowed museums, was actually doing, what it meant, what its subject really was. And it struck me that this—and the rather gauche sculpture of a mountain lion attacking a dog in an adjacent room, and the faux naive pen drawings of flowers in the gallery next door—have a lot to do with class.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop: the tractors, the crashed Pontiac, The New Beetle, the woman sleeping on a bench, the little girl on a pony, Huck and Jim. Come to think of it, about half of Ray’s back catalog points to social status, high or low. Last year, Ray exhibited two new sculptures of mechanics at work, each machined from solid aluminum and painted white to look like “porcelain” (as the gallery’s press release described it). The signifiers of class—though not obviously the politics—were everywhere.
This aspect of Ray’s oeuvre is increasingly hard to ignore. Ray has always self-presented as a kind of schlubby everyman; I have never met him but I feel I know him from sculptures such as Self-Portrait (1990)—a mannequin outfitted in Ray’s own bucket hat and windbreaker—or, notably, Horse and Rider (2014), the grandeur of a mounted self-portrait comically deflated by his relaxed-fit jeans and deck shoes.
As the artist’s stature grows, however, and his production budgets rise along with his prices, Ray’s depiction of upscale subjects begins to seem fawning to the tastes of his patrons, while his treatment of blue-collar subjects comes off as cruelly ironic. I don’t mean to imply that Ray himself has changed—I wouldn’t know—but that the meaning of his work has gained a classier context. I remembered that Ray’s forthcoming retrospective, in Paris next spring, will be split between the Centre Pompidou, home of France’s national museum of modern art, and the Bourse de Commerce, the luxury goods tycoon Francois Pinault’s new private foundation, housed in a former stock market. The bifurcation seemed poignant.
Typically, Ray’s work has been explained through his interest in art history, especially in the art of Classical Greece and Rome—as if that were somehow neutral. Consider, for instance, the 325–300 B.C. Greek sculpture Lion Attacking a Horse, which Ray must have seen in 2012 when it was loaned by the Capitoline Museums in Rome to Los Angeles’s Getty Villa. Yet Ray’s Mountain Lion Attacking a Dog (2018), editioned in a range of machined aluminum, sterling silver, and stainless steel, evokes less the Greek sculpture than its descendants, the generic bronzes of animals tearing each other apart by European sculptors such as Antoine-Louis Barye that were popular in aristocratic drawing rooms in the 19th century, and in the offices of hedgefund managers in the 21st.
Two horses inevitably evokes the most famous equine artist who ever lived, George Stubbs. As the British artist Mark Wallinger has observed, Stubbs’s 18th-century paintings of thoroughbred racehorses done for aristocratic patrons are thinly veiled boasts about the prestige of superior breeding and racial purity. (In fact, British racehorses were Arabian, as alluded by Wallinger’s work Ghost, in which the subject of Stubbs’s Whistlejacket is rendered as a unicorn.)
Ray’s perversity as an artist—one of many things I admire him for—lies in his ability to dodge, deflect, or dissemble from direct interpretation. Much of the time he succeeds. Ray is a formalist, or at least as close to a formalist as contemporary discourse can tolerate. (To make sculpture only about materials, about weight and volume and physicality, these days seems unforgivably oblivious to the harsh exigencies of contemporary life.) According to Ray, his Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley… (1992), an orgy of self-portrait mannequins, is not primarily about masturbation or even sex; Unpainted Sculpture (1997), a fiberglass effigy of a crashed car in which a woman died, is not about the car, or her death. But it’s not not about those things, either. Even if Ray’s work is primarily about the decisions entailed in its own fabrication, it must also be about the decisions by the artist in choosing particular subjects.
Sometimes Ray’s evasions really make one’s head spin. The engorged pudenda of Aluminum Girl, for example, is dismissed by Ray (in a 2016 lecture at the Menil Collection) as “just what happens” when you apply warm plaster to every crevice of a body. What the artist finds “powerful” in this apparently sexualizing effect, he says, isn’t so much to do with pornography but with the scale of the figure, who at just over five feet is more girl than woman. Again, the shrinkage of the model’s stature is just the inadvertent result of the process of casting and recasting in different materials. (The decision not to title it Aluminum Woman, however, is entirely Ray’s.)
If so much meaning inheres in materials and technique, then what of Two horses? Think of the human toil, the sweat and dust and hours spent to prise this hunk of rock out of the ground in one piece, and haul it across the country, first to Wisconsin, where it was carved, then to LA, where it was mounted, invisibly and apparently effortlessly, on a gallery wall. The final work is a powerful testament to old-fashioned blue collar labor, the like of which is increasingly threatened by technological automation.
But unlike previous works by Ray which have been made through painstaking hand-carving (Hinoki) or aluminum casting (Tractor) or fiberglass painting (Unpainted Sculpture), the robotic carving technique that produced the delicate relief of two horses is more akin to the printing process of photography than to traditional sculptural methods. The double image connects the sculpture to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion study photographs. You could argue that Muybridge observed the dying gasps of an old idea of visual art as a static phenomenon and ushered in the moving image, which forced art to contend with its temporality, with shifting perspectives and ill-defined limits and criteria. It was photography—but painting and sculpture would never be the same. Looking at Muybridge’s photographs of horses, one can imagine that the artist understood he was helping destroy something he loved, something that was nevertheless no longer tenable or true. Looking at Ray’s sculpture of horses, I get a similar feeling.
Two horses may be photographic, but not in a casual iPhone snapshot way. I have never digitally routed anything in my life, certainly not a 10-by-14-foot granite monolith. I am sure the procedure is much more complicated and laborious than tapping a trackpad or two. Still, trackpads will have been tapped. The processes of both making and looking at this work put me in mind of the Victorian gentleman-photographers who waited patiently in the dark while grey impressions of the world emerged on plates of glass. It has none of the democracy of smartphone photography, which everyone can—and does—execute daily without much thought. Instead, it relates more to the labor-, time-, and cost-intensive processes of early photography, when flunkies were a necessity for carrying the heavy equipment and studious assistants could take care of the tedious preparation of chemicals.
Much of the pleasure of looking at Two horses is its slowness; it takes time for the eye to unpeel the image of the horses from the grain of the granite, which sometimes augments and sometimes interferes with the illusion of their shadowy forms. In the magnificent main space of Matthew Marks’s Los Angeles gallery, to spend time alone with the work is akin to visiting a high fresco in a gloomy Venetian church: solemn, reverent, and potentially transcendent. For people alienated or exhausted by the confrontational tone of much contemporary art, this is a comfortingly genteel way for an artwork to comport itself. It does not impudently demand its viewers bring anything with them into the gallery other than patience and the willingness to look carefully. Two horses wants to be a masterpiece, in the most conservative sense of the word. Maybe, in that sense, it is.
Do all these reflections make me like Two horses less? I still think it is a phenomenally subtle and sophisticated piece of work, one that makes most other contemporary art look hapless and trifling. But when you assume the reach of the artwork’s meaning to be generated not only by the floor around the sculpture (as Ray has often argued) but by the entire building housing it, and by every aspect of its inception, production, presentation, and subsequent existence as a possession, then the work’s masterly status (to use a painfully gendered term) seems less assured, less unarguable, and more dependent on the elevated station into which it was born.
First published: X-tra Online, October 2019