Defying the style. (artist Charles Ray)(Interview)

Author/s: Nayland Blake
Issue: July, 1998

In many of the big, must-see art shows of this decade, Charles Ray's work has consistently been grabbing people's attention. For a great reason: It plays with expectations

The work of Charles Ray, who was born in Chicago in 1953, is smart but not preachy. In a career that has included performance, photography, sculpture, and film, Ray - who has been a major part of the Los Angeles art scene since moving to Southern California in 1981 - has managed a remarkable feat: his work exhibits a freewheeling diversity yet remains uniquely his own.

Ray always supplies the unexpected. In 1992, he stole the "Helter Skelter" show at Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) with his giant female mannequin sculpture. In 1995, his tiny figure in a bottle pulled off what was previously thought impossible: Both critics and audiences at a Whitney Biennial agreed on something - Ray's magic. The Whitney is currently the first stop (through August 30) for Ray's mid-career retrospective, which will also travel to MOCA and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

NAYLAND BLAKE: You've made a lot of mannequin sculptures in the '90s, several of which will be in the Whitney show. You started making them before there was a lot of figuration going on.

CHARLES RAY: No, there wasn't a lot of figuration going on then. But I guess I've never been concerned with working in the current art-world style. In fact, I've often gone against it, and that disregard is something that a lot of people who write about my work have picked up on.

NB: How did that kind of attitude lead you to mannequin sculptures?

CR: Well, I had done a couple of mannequins just before the one you saw in the "Helter Skelter" show. The first was a self-portrait, and I think there was one with a cast of my genitals on it. The mannequins started because when I was making my table pieces, I'd often be in department stores looking for objects to use in still lifes, and I'd noticed the mannequins. I really liked department stores. They're very disorienting and hallucinatory. I don't go into them so much anymore, but I find them to be very democratic.

NB: Right.

CR: Everything's about the same value. Car battery, leather purse, fishing pole, women's underwear - all put on the same pedestal. It's son of beautiful that way. At a certain point, the mannequins I would see in these stores seemed really interesting to me as a sort of contemporary figuration. When I did the first piece, I started working with the mannequin industry a little bit and I learned that there was this thing called the Sears standard for mannequins. In the '50s, the industry went from papier-mache to fiberglass, and this actually coincided with the rise of chains of department stores. Sears was huge - they made a lot of mannequins - and so the mannequin industry was born. With the Sears standard, the proportions are all the same - the length of the fingers, the length of the legs, the size of a head or a shoe. Every mannequin sculptor is totally aware of the Sears standard. Even though I made some changes, I didn't want to screw around too much with the conventions of the mannequin. We've all, at art school, used mannequins, or when we were little, pulled some prank like sticking one in an outhouse. When I was little, I had a mannequin and some friends had a tree fort in their front yard, about two stories up. When a car came by, we'd push the mannequin out of the fort. It would fall and we'd scream.

NB: [laughs]

CR: Or we'd bury one at the beach and bring some kids by and dig it up. But I wasn't interested in that or the dangling limbs or the surreal aspect of it. For my first mannequin, I decided to keep it as is and put my face on it - and my own head and clothes. The second one was obviously male, with genitalia, but everything else was just the mannequin. I scaled it up 30 percent but kept everything else identical.

NB: Can you talk a little about what attracted you to the mannequins?

CR: Back when I would look at the mannequin catalogs, the mannequins just seemed very seductive. They seemed more pornographic than the pornography that was available.

NB: Because the mannequin is a kind of ideal form.

CR: Yeah. You look at pornography and there's this thing about desire and projection. But you feel removed from these perfectly airbrushed girls, too. With the mannequin catalog or brochure, it's the same thing. It's like an inner, inner world.

NB: What about the outfits for them?

CR: I wanted them to look like they were in Ann Taylor, were by executives at the gas company or something. I bought a few things from Ann Taylor and realized if I bumped them up 30 percent, they'd look like Bozo the Clown or something. They're actually really expensive outfits, like fifteen-hundred-dollar suits, although when they're blown up they look like three-hundred-dollar ones.

NB: Partly because they lose the fineness of the detail?

CR: Yeah.

NB: Looking at your finished mannequins, I can see how you could develop a real relationship with them.

CR: There can even be something kind of weird about that. For a long time, for example, I would make a sculpture and it would give me an erection somehow. It would just have a kind of erotic quality to it. It wasn't the main reason I made them, obviously, but it raised some strange questions, You know, when you get an erection in public, you kind of cross your legs a little bit. It's a quiet response, But when you get one with your lover, it isn't so quiet.

NB: It's a public/private thing.

CR: Yeah. When you're attracted to someone, there's a structure to the attraction. You just don't rip off your clothes right away.

NB: [laughs]

CR: There's a whole structure to the courtship and to the seduction. Not in an arbitrary way, or a scheming way, but in a really beautiful, human way. In that sense, I guess mannequins will never be quite like people.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group




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