A Sculptural Differential: Charles Ray

by Zachary Cahill


Charles Ray talks with Zachary Cahill about how sculpture constitutes an intersection between actual space and states of mind. A differential is an automotive part that allows two wheels on the same axle to run at varying speeds. A sculptural differential might thus be a useful metaphor, not only for considering sculpture itself, but also as a device with which to “think sculpturally,” as Ray would put it.


ZACHARY CAHILL: Let’s start with why you chose flowers for your drawings.

CHARLES RAY: They’re colorful. I use them as an instant armature to engage with color, indulge in color. For me they are a kind of artistic location, or mental location, where I can begin without overthinking things. What’s at stake in my sculptures is different from what’s at stake in the flower drawings.

ZC: In that Los Angeles Times interview, you said you did the flower drawings to relax in the evening.

CR: The drawing is very haptic, in that it’s centered on the experience of doing it, in the moment. The sculpture is more an investigation of my engagement with my life, with the world, what things are, how I am, what is around me. The flower drawings are certainly an engagement with life, too—they’re sensual, they’re in front of me, i’m making decisions—but they’re instantaneous. I can go to the same armature every day, in a way. That’s a simplistic way of putting it, because one could say there’s a developmental quality to the flower drawings as well. But what’s at stake is different.

ZC: I love that you use sculptural language for talking about the drawings. Words like “armature.”

CR: One can see armature in everything, by which I mean a kind of core to build around. The notion of the armature could shift, within a period of time, or an engagement with a particular work. But, yes, it is like a steel rod that you put clay around.

ZC: How did you decide to start exhibiting the flower drawings, for instance at the Whitney biennial in 2010?

CR: That year, my friend Francesco Bonami was the curator, and he asked me if I would exhibit a flower drawing. I said I would do it if he gave a whole room, so people could see many of them all at once. Surprisingly, he said yes.

ZC: I’m interested to ask you about sculpture’s presentness. How important is the spatial component, for you? What is urgent, or necessary, about occupying space?

CR: Well, it’s how you enter the question, or what the trajectory into that meaning is. I think it has to do more with building, being able to express haptically through building, and then finding a syntax and a building language. When I was young, I had difficulty expressing myself in writing. Not in speaking, but in being able to put together complex, coherent sentences on paper. When I went to university and actually started making sculpture, I found myself engaging with its sense of the physical. I liked outdoor sports such as sailing, and mountain trekking. I liked certain formalities. I think I mentioned earlier that I had gone to military school, which I didn’t like, but it did instill a very rigid set of rules regarding how to behave. Formalist sculpture had rules embedded in it, so I came to understand them pretty quickly. I became able to express myself by putting things together and building. So I devoted myself to that, rather than writing essays or doing historical research for term papers.

ZC: That brings me to your lovely essay on Alberto Giacometti from 2001. You really captured the way Giacometti space-sculpted objects, meaning, the degree to which the space around the figures is activated. How does that relate to how you think about your own work?

CR: I think about that all the time. But it isn’t something that deploys; you can’t turn it on and off. In an interview, Giacometti once said, “I tend to make sculptures as realistically as possible.” The interviewer replied, “What are you talking about?” and Giacometti replied, “No, it’s true, when I look at you, I see your nose, your lips, your groin, your elbow, your knee, your toes. I have to scan you to see all of you. I can’t see all of you until I back up, across the room. Then I can see all of you. But I don’t only see you. I see this great, huge vista of space in and around you, squeezing and compressing you.” That’s a really sculptural idea: how is a sculpture in the room, and in the world? How is it embedded in space? It’s really complex, and Giacometti goes at it in really interesting ways. We were talking about armatures before; he had a beautiful use of armature in that he made works on the wire, and squeezed the clay, working away at a figure, and at a certain point, he would stop. Then his brother Diego would come in and make a plaster mold. But the work is not necessarily finished now that he has a plaster. He still has the armature and the clay. He might resume working with the clay and take it in a different direction. So one rod with clay on it could produce five, six, seven, eight different plasters. Out of those plasters, maybe six, three, or one would become a bronze. All thought has an armature, in a sense. There is a similar process that goes on in the brain, where you build up and off other thoughts, sculpturally. So when you ask me how Giacometti’s process relates to my own work: well, physically, no, I don’t have a wire and squish clay on it. But there is the armature, and the building of the armature, seeing the different developmental stages. Once you get an “idea” or “product” finished—you realize there is no “finished”—but the armature doesn’t have to be regarded, disregarded. It’s not a means to an end; it’s a core. So when you build something, you need an armature, you need a structure.

ZC: Space has many facets: psychological, physical…

CR: Well, it’s a funny thing. I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of talk about how people think about space. Architects, for example, talk about “the space,” as in civic space, or interior space. Exterior space. Private space. People used to call the internet the information superhighway. They don’t use that term any more. But the spatial metaphor is fascinating. It is kind of interesting to use mathematical topologies in dimensional work. For instance if you imagine sphere-packing—meaning, how many spheres you can pack in a box—what’s more efficient? You can throw them all in, or stack them. If, mathematically—which you can do in an equation very easily—you make a four-dimensional box, or a five-dimensional box, or an eleven-dimensional box, you can pack more oranges in it, because it has more dimensions. It is debatable whether such things exist or not. But mathematicians can access them, and deal with them in equations. My point is that I don’t see sculpture as “in” space. I see sculpture as using space, bending it, modeling it, manipulating it. I know that’s an analogy, because where do you bend, where do you manipulate? I had a designer friend who gave me a very beautiful colander that he designed, for rinsing pasta. I have it in my kitchen. Another friend of mine, a philosopher, saw it and said to me, “Why do you have that perforated object around all those holes in your kitchen drawer?” [both laugh]

ZC: So, it depends on how you approach it. To a sculptor, or a philosopher, the holes could have preceded the perforated object.

CR: Why is David Smith’s Untitled (Candida) (1965) not a frame? You know, since you can look through it? It’s complicated, I think, and a very beautiful sculptural equation.

ZC: For me, there’s a psychological register that your work is operating on. It also has humor, although it’s more deadpan, not knee-slapping humor. I think humor and psychology often go together, whether it’s Freud writing about jokes, or Woody Allen on the psychiatrist’s couch so often in his films. Can you talk about those different states, and how you think of them?

CR: They’re inseparable, certainly. You can’t take the psychology out of space. Nor can you take the warp out of it. Maybe making sculptures is a process of removal. How much can you take out and still have something? Take out what you know, maybe. I’ve talked about this aspect of my work a lot: take the black ink in Ink Box (1986). It doesn’t work with green ink. It had to be black ink. What’s unfortunate is we already intuitively understand why the black ink in Ink Box had to be black.

ZC: It seems like a real coming together of material choice, with an effect on how the work operates.

CR: It has something to do with how deeply and strongly it is embedded in the world, and how much it will live outside its own meaning.

ZC: What do you mean by “live outside its own meaning”? Can you give an example?

CR: An obvious example would be an archaic work like the Manhattan kouros figure. I have no idea what it was made for. But I find it fascinating, and for me it’s a contemporary work of art because it’s still generating meaning, today, for me. A lot things don’t, you know. They kind of fall away. Or else become “historical.”

ZC: You were discussing Tractor (2005) as being like a thought machine, with all those gears.

CR: That work came about from my car having a broken differential. I had the idea to send one of my students to go extract it, and we put it on the seminar table and opened it up. And it was like opening up a human head. It was kind of magical. It was very sculptural. The fluid was like blood, or brain fluid. The gear mechanism for transforming power from direction to speed is like a thought. And thought is physical, as you know. That led to my thinking about the tractor and other aspects of space. The space inside the tractor could be mine, in a way; it was protected, so I could build thoughts, or sculptures, within it. The fabricator made many different ports and access points to the interior of that thing. All the bolts and everything were handmade. As it was coming together, to prove to me that everything was going as I wanted, the fabricator unbolted everything so I could look in and see the crankshaft. And I said, “OK, great, now weld it shut.” He was incredulous because it had been so much work. But my thought was, if you leave it open, or leave it so that someone could open it, the collector will always be opening it and looking inside, and that wasn’t what the work was about. I wanted it to be a kind of transparent object. I wanted you to be able to look at it, and almost see into it and see through it, and understand without direct visual confirmation that the entire interior was topologically complete.

ZC: Sculpted.

CR: It’s called Tractor, but I think of it as Philosophical Object. Like a philosopher’s stone, you can look upon it and meditate. Our culture is so in tune with assembled objects—cars, airplanes, and whatnot. The whole is so strong, that at first you don’t see the hands that were at play in making it. First, you think it’s a tractor, sandblasted. Then, if you know my work, you think it’s a tractor cast in some different material. It takes a long time to understand that it’s handmade. It’s not cast. you start to see, quietly, the different hands that made it. Then you slowly start to figure out and, potentially, look through it and into it. Realize that the interior was handmade as well.

ZC: If a piece is “working,” do the parts just start locking together in different ways? Like, the engines start firing, in a sense?

CR: An object has to have authority. An object has to be able to be in front of you, with you seeing it. One could say that early, early sculpture was separated from the natural world. Art historian Richard Neer in his writings says you have to remember, archaic works were the only smooth objects in a rough, rough world. The world was brick, and mud, and dirty. Behold this figurative, smooth object. So, your object has to differentiate itself, it has to speak. And, so, there are parameters. It’s nice to imagine that there are no rules, but there are rules. Every time you break a rule, you make a rule. I come out of a rich background of high-Modernist sculpture. It’s easy for me to think that that’s what I continue to be. Maybe it’s harder for other people to see that, but, to speak to your point about locking together, I guess I see my work as a relationship of parts.

ZC: I don’t know if “timelessness” is a word you’d use, but there’s a certain way that the work…

CR: “Timeless” is probably the wrong word, because it suggests preciousness. “Oh, this is timeless.” It’s too politically loaded, too.

ZC: But what about works such as Boy with Frog (2009)? If they aren’t references to the classical idiom of sculpture, do they still have something to do with persistence through time?

CR: I totally understand why people would see Boy with Frog as classical. It comes to the viewer through that familiarity, but to me, it comes from Modernist sculpture. It’s complicated, because it also comes out of my earlier figuration with the mannequins. As well as my sculptural concerns with relationships. I see the figure like Donald Judd saw a box. It is a convenient armature. A number of years ago, I saw figuration as way for sculptural events to unfold. I saw the figure as a really simple armature to make sculpture out of, or on to, or with. In a work like Aluminum Girl (2003) there are lots of different things going on, on the surface. They’re not all techniques, but some are techniques. There are aspects of re-sculpting, body molds, there’s naturalism, there’s stylization. One of the beautiful parts of the kouros figure I was very inspired by is that some aspects of it feel natural, like the step it’s taking. Other aspects feel super stylized. The hair has a stiffness, like a nine-year-old girl drew it on the back of a notebook. So there’s an interplay through the surface of what’s stylized and what’s natural, as there is in us. There are certain parts of you that you can’t get rid of; they’re just you. Other parts you can stylize to be presentable: for a job, in front of your colleagues, in front of your boss. My point is that I can project that way into the kouros figure. But with classical work, I can’t anymore. It’s so idealized, and mathematical, and spatial, that it’s singing a different song. It’s in a different cosmos in a way. It’s a beautiful shift, I think.

ZC: So, explain to me how something analogous is happening in Boy with Frog.

CR: In Boy with Frog, there are three forms of realism going on. The frog is hyperrealistic, while aspects of the boy are stylized. There are aspects that are in focus, aspects that are out of focus. Those aren’t random. Everything is orchestrated through and around it. There’s a complexity through it, the child, his “boy-ness.” It isn’t overblown. It’s not a big scale. It’s scaled only to hold the ground. That allows me to find the frog and boy: his youth is in that trajectory.

ZC: A lot of what you’re saying is helping me understand how you think about the flower drawings in relationship to other works. Maybe the flower drawings are a way of cordoning off your mind, and not thinking about the kinds of conversations you are having in sculpture, such as these complex, broader relationships to historical precedents.

CR: I would say that I like the flowers because I don’t have to account for them to myself, too much. Whereas with my sculptures, there’s a lot I need to think about.

ZC: Like embodied thinking.

CR: A little bit. They are my thinking, my work. My work is my thinking. A way into the world, for me. Somehow, the way you look sculpturally you can’t articulate verbally. It pulls the world into it, without being a tunnel.

ZC: So you’re saying that, at some level, sculpture is a kind of transformer? I think John Chamberlain once said that sculpture allowed him to see and share his craziness with other people.

CR: It’s hard to articulate, but it has to do with how an object is in a room, and framing. Here, you are sharing the space with that cup, and with your notebook. You put it in a vignette, and you don’t share the space with it anymore. It becomes something that you’re allowed to read. You start reading the narrative, reading the story. You know what your relationship is to it, even if you don’t understand it.

ZC: It seems like you’re saying one of the things that sculpture can do, because it doesn’t have a frame around it—if it is a machine for meaning- making—is that it keeps things open with respect to how you encounter it.

CR: I am interested in how works bring the viewer into their structure. For instance how Vito Acconci brought the viewer into a work like Seedbed (1972). You’re manipulated, and drawn right in. You’re a viewer, but you’re in the aesthetic structure, the literal artistic structure, of the situation. To me, it’s interesting where you are in relationship to a work. In an expanded way, if a work can move you physically, it can move you mentally. Sculpture is not objects, if it’s good sculpture. You were talking about interior and exterior; one thing I think you can learn through sculpture is that there is no difference between interior and exterior. That’s an illusion, in a way; it’s psychological. It’s a psychological perception if your thoughts aren’t physical. That, to me, is a very sculptural realization. It comes from years of thinking about interior space, exterior space, pedestals, bases, and how to embed a work in the world. How is a thought embedded in the world? Or a perception? Does the object come first, or does the perception of the object come first, the identity of the thing?


Originally published on Mousse 41 (December 2013-January 2014)


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