My time in Chicago coincided with the exhibition of sculpture by American artist Charles Ray. This was pure luck as I like his work a good deal and admire his tenacity. Controversy has surrounded him, his ‘Boy with Frog’ was removed from its position in Venice, but he seems to have continued to create work on his own terms.
He is based in Los Angeles but he was born in Chicago so it is fitting that the exhibition of his sculpture was here at the Art Institute of Chicago. His works from 1997 to 2014 were on show here. These included the ‘Boy with Frog’ and ‘Huck and Jim’, a work that was commissioned by the Whitney in New York but then not used because of the unclothed nature of the work. I imagine the good people of New York would have been shocked, or the gallery staff worried that the good people would be shocked. Probably, they would have coped!
I particularly like the way he makes the observer think again about things which you think you understood. His sculptures come in different sizes, they are not always ‘life-size’, and they show humans in ways that demand a second look. ‘Boy with Frog’ is at least eight feet tall, for instance. I also liked the idea of creating sequential works based on the childhood of one boy. The son of a friend was the model for ‘Boy with a Frog’ as well as one of a boy playing with a toy, showing him when he was about six years old, and one of the, now, teen boy dressed for a part in a school play.
It was the ‘Huck and Jim’ sculpture that impressed me the most. Based on two characters from ‘Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain, the sculpture shows the young men without clothes. Ray based this on the lines from the novel, “We was always naked, day and night,” Huck says, “and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow”. I love this book but had given very little thought to the idea that the words written by Mark Twain meant that they really were naked most of the time!
The work of Charles Ray is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?