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Issue 39 March-April 1998 RSS

Charles Ray

Regen Projects, Los Angeles, USA

At a time when the ‘quick read’ rules, when gallery visits often require less than five minutes for a thorough stock-taking, and when magazines, catalogues and TV effectively supplant in situ spectatorship, it almost comes as a shock to encounter an exhibition that demands and rewards time-consuming scrutiny. Even more unlikely is that this sort of engagement should be generated by a single object, but for Charles Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture (1997), the sole work on view, surprise is only one of its ample charms.

Unpainted Sculpture is a meticulous recreation in fibreglass of a crashed Pontiac Grand Am (circa 1991) where everything from engine hoses to cracked tail lights, carpet texture to coin holder is carefully replicated. Despite the work’s misleading title, it is painted a soft dove grey that is reminiscent of the plastic parts of model car kits (genuinely unpainted), intimating an irrational shift in scale not dissimilar to many of the artist’s recent works. The monotone grey just as importantly serves to equalise every square inch of the wreck, so that as one’s eyes probe the bulges and recesses, all details become significant and are shown to be mutually dependent on the overall dynamics of the composition. Thus, as frontal impact has sent the bonnet billowing backwards into the cockpit, so has it incrementally rippled the roof and popped the rear doors askew. The viewing process is intensified by this egalitarian dynamism, but also by the spectacular destruction represented, so that the same curiosity that slows down drivers hungry to see the results of a motorway accident equally propels gallery visitors to pore over the wreckage and speculate about the fate of its occupant. It is highly probable that the driver was killed, judging from the egregious penetration by the bonnet into the space of the front seat, and also by the full reclination of that seat to allow the body to be resuscitated or removed (how much we know about such things!), yet that doesn’t close the door on the drama of the work.

In spite of its hulking presence in the gallery, the work’s material and colour endow it with an ethereal lightness that belies its massive physicality. The suggested spectre of death similarly pulls it into a realm of otherworldliness in which its baroque arabesques of twisted metal and mangled plastic miraculously align this most profane sculpture with religious art. Surveying the soft folds of crumpled door panels and undulating roof contours, my thoughts turned to Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1645-52), a sculpture that makes monochromatic, grey-white marble look as if it could float heavenward in its exuberant evocation of drapery. St. Theresa was pierced by a flaming arrow, while the driver of the Pontiac was done in by a larger projectile, yet both, it can be assumed, were convinced that God would take them to a better place. In the case of the latter-day saint, a ‘Jesus is Lord’ plaque mounted on the lid of the car’s boot serves as a wholly plausible proclamation of contemporary faith.

Contemporaneity is key in Ray’s work, for connections to the myths and beliefs of the present give it an urgency that is only enriched by art historical associations. The car wreck, in particular, is an entirely modern event that has played a major role in works by figures such as Warhol, Godard, Ballard, Cronenberg and Chamberlain, all of whom have explored its power, beauty, tragedy and banality to varying degrees. The list of cultural luminaries immortalised by their automotive deaths is even longer, from Jackson Pollock to James Dean, Princess Grace to Princess Di, and brings enough combined romanticism and longing to the genre to make suicide seem a second-rate route to iconicity. Ray has likewise immortalised himself with a deadly car crash, making the best work of his career, yet in his case, living to talk about it may be less a blessing than an unexpected curse. How will he ever top this?

Michael Darling

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First published in
Issue 39, March-April 1998

by Michael Darling

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