The Uncanny Impact of Charles Ray’s Sculptures

The ever-startling creations of the artistic and philosophical provocateur look back in spirit, if not in appearance, to the sublimity of ancient Greek art.
A sculpture of a reclining silver naked woman on display at the Met.
Ray’s “Reclining Woman” (2018) is among the sculptor’s works on display at the Met, where each piece is a provocation.Photographs by Caroline Tompkins for The New Yorker; Art works © Charles Ray

“Charles Ray: Figure Ground,” at the Metropolitan Museum, is a succinct retrospective of nineteen works from the more than five-decade-long career of America’s most enthralling contemporary sculptor. Ray is an artistic and philosophical provocateur whose ever-startling creations look back in spirit, if rarely in appearance, to the sublimity of ancient Greek art. Labor-intensive recent works—often figurative pieces that he develops in clay before they are machined from single blocks of aluminum or stainless steel, or carved in solid cypress by Japanese woodworkers under his direction—rivet and bemuse. Take “Mime” (2014), a life-size aluminum representation of an eponymous male performer lying supine on a cot and, with eyes closed, pretending (one may assume) to be asleep or dead. The work isn’t a description. It’s a thing, splitting a stylistic difference between realism and abstraction. Just to begin comprehending it you must walk around to absorb, from several angles, aspects of its resistantly gleaming, reflective surface.

“Family Romance,” from 1993.

“Space is the sculptor’s primary medium,” Ray once said. The point is emphasized at the Met by the dispersal of individual pieces in two cavernous rooms. The prevalent emptiness becomes an aesthetic stimulus in itself, as you wander the installation. Each item, sampling Ray’s multifarious subjects and means, scores a discrete shock. “Family Romance” (1993), in painted fibreglass and synthetic hair, depicts a dad, a mom, a young son, and a toddler daughter, lined up with hands joined. All are naked and exactly the same height, scaled to the average stature of a child eight or so years old. The piece is fraught with inexplicable emotion and, once seen, apt to take up permanent residence in your memory.