Shoeless Ray: Charles Ray, Contemporary Art’s Most Obsessive Perfectionist, Has a New Show at Matthew Marks

Three sculptures, years in the making

‘Young man,’ 2012, solid stainless steel, 71 x 21 x 13 1/2 inches. (© Charles Ray, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

The more you look at the figures in the Marks show—aside from the woman, there’s one of a nude young man and a self-portrait—the weirder they become. He typically starts with photographs of his subjects, which he uses to make a clay model, scans that into a computer, reshapes it, uses a machine to cut a foam model, covers that in clay, works that and then scans it again. Periodically he uses a plaster-like material called Forton to make casts that serve as “lighthouses so I can see my way back if I go in one direction too far,” he said. “They go in and out of the computer.” It’s an elaborate process, but eventually a steel sculpture is cut. He and his assistants worked the surfaces of the three machine-cut sculptures in the show so that they have the soft look of clay in some places, the hard-edged technical perfection of the machine in others. Because of these variations, they seem to glide in and out of focus as you examine them. It’s art as slow food. “There is a time that it asks of you,” he said. “It’s not a special effect or a trick. It’s a richness of events on the surface of the sculpture.”

He spent three years working on the woman’s running shoes, finally alighting on a solution only after he and his assistants agonized over her hair. “It was just totally a mess,” he said. “As soon as you try to start sculpting that, you bring your hand to it and you bring style to it. So very quickly she started looking like Don King, when we’re doing it. You know, because you’re touching it and you’re handling it. So we’re doing it over and over and after many months, it would just never really resolve. One morning I came in and they had loaded it up with fresh clay, and I said, ‘Just don’t touch it, just leave it.” Countless hours of work, only to realize they should just slap clay quickly on her head. He left the shoes similarly raw. “It’s like a quote,” he said. “There’s a passage from the ground to her mind, or from her mind to the ground. She’s in the dust. There’s something about the earth in her head, the earth on her shoes, the dirt, the mud.”

Those are the obsessive details that comprise the big ideas. “She can be almost a modern narrative, if you will,” he said. “Sleep as geology. She sleeps as a mountain. She’s homeless—the sculpture is hard to get rid of. She’s here for good. I see her as very Egyptian actually, this idea of a ka, a soul. And there’s another beautiful thing that I see. We’re all equal in sleep. She sleeps, you know, the same as Donald Trump sleeps, you know what I mean? We’re all equal there.” Mr. Ray has called his works “meaning machines”—intensely strange, beautiful objects that we are gently invited to make sense of.

“This one is just so sort of stark—just a naked guy,” Mr. Ray said, as he walked us a few yards over from the woman to Young man (2012). Young man is a standing figure. He appears to be in his mid-20s. He has shaggy hair and a beard, and his arms are at his sides. “He’s surly a little bit,” said Mr. Ray. “Not surly: he’s nice but a little aggressive, a little passive-aggressive.” The sculpture is based on a friend of Mr. Ray’s. “I spent so much time trying to sculpt an aspect of him,” he added. “Many of my sculptures take a long time to make. This is the first one where I think I used time to make it. I spent so much time trying to find his gestures, his self.”

In the self-portrait, Mr. Ray is again nude. The work is called Shoe Tie (2012), and it’s the newest sculpture in the show. He’s crouched down and appears to be tying his shoe, only there’s no shoe because he is completely naked. It’s as though the artist is ducking out of sight, trying to avoid being seen by someone, but there’s nothing in the gallery to hide behind. “It came from this idea that if there was a ghost and he was to tie his shoe, he wouldn’t need to have a shoe,” he explained.

“Here’s a remnant of that, of the original idea,” he said, pointing to the figure. “See how the arm goes through the knee?”—in the sculpture, his left elbow glides just barely into the his lower thigh—“It’s transparent, but it’s solid steel. And that was more obvious before, and with time I’ve kept it, but made it less and less obvious. So he was originally like a ghost. He’s also bigger than life, a little bit.” He crouched alongside the sculpture and pretended to tie his shoe, in order to show that his own thumb was just a touch smaller than the sculpture’s.

“When you make a sculpture,” he explained, “you’re working in experiential space, so if I were to make you exactly your size, you would appear diminutive because when you talk you’re always moving or shaking or your hands are going here, so that vibration makes you bigger as one experiences you.”

It’s a bracing thought: we are smaller than we think. And just as we work to understand things like that about ourselves, Mr. Ray struggles to understand his sculptures over the time he spends with them. “My ideas about what I was going to be doing changed over the years,” he admitted at one point in our interview, examining Young man, and later, as he surveyed his exhibition, he said that he sees the three sculptures “as very modern, very much in the future, in a way. They kind of tumble into time. They’re solid. They’re off into time now.”

Shoeless Ray: Charles Ray, Contemporary Art’s Most Obsessive Perfectionist, Has a New Show at Matthew Marks