Ray's art frequently looks simple, but in fact it is often very difficult to install and maintain. (For proof, try filling an old-fashioned porcelain bathtub with water, then mounting it--vertically, not horizontally--on a wall. Ray's water-filled "Bath," from 1989, floats impossibly in the space of the museum wall, as if seen from an aerial vantage point.) At least three of the nine works at Newport required heroic measures to accommodate. You have the sense that the complications of installation were all the museum could handle.
Still, coupled with the actual gallery presentation at Burnett Miller, the perspicacious (and peripatetic) visitor will find numerous rewards. Together, the shows make plain that a lexicon of forms has begun to emerge in Ray's mature work, forms whose ancestry in his early body sculptures is clear. The shelf, or table-top, is a recurrent motif, as are the rotating disk and the mannequin (a surrogate human body). And the box, or other type of container, is perhaps pre-eminent.
Space, a sculptor's principal medium, is keenly deployed within this range of forms, several of which can coexist in a single piece. "Table" (1990) is most eloquent in this regard. A simple table of steel, topped by a clear sheet of plexiglass, is arrayed with a variety of containers--pitcher, bowl, drinking glasses, carafe, covered jar--also formed of transparent plastic. In each case, the plane of contact between container and table-top has been cut out; if you put anything in the bowl, for example, it would go through to the floor. Intangible space seems to flow disconcertingly through the sculpture.
The jar provides a subtle but important counterpoint to that flow, its cover rudely putting a lid on the action. Thus are the fluid properties of space made strangely visible, while emptiness is given energetic life.
Two earlier table sculptures also play with perceptual incongruities. One transforms a still life into a group of individual objects, each slowly rotating at an almost imperceptible speed; the other connects its assorted still-life elements by way of a network of tubes crisscrossing beneath the table's surface. (A fourth table, not in either show, removes the surface of the table altogether; each still-life element is suspended by a supporting rod, together identifying a plane of empty space.) Vaguely diabolical in bearing, these disparate sculptures show how Ray returns to a simple motif to mine it in a variety of ways.
More important, there is something poignant and solitary about the table sculptures. The technical complexity of Ray's art is such that you tend to scrutinize the work in an effort to understand how it was made and, by extension, through what processes the idea might have originated. The table sculptures conjure someone sitting alone at a kitchen table--"contemplating the salt shaker," as it were, or thinking about the nature of things. The artist, \o7 in absentia\f7 , is suggested.
He also turns up as a costumed department store mannequin in a recent self-portrait sculpture, as well as in an installation in which a framed, photographic self-portrait is curved to fit the swelling, curved wall on which it incongruously hangs. The curved wall, irrationally bowed out into the room, seems to be responding to enormous hidden pressures; riding the crest of the wave, the artist's image is carried along for the ride.
Ray's mannequin is very funny, in part because such things are supposed to be generic, not specific, and in part because artists' self-portraits typically tend toward the cerebral or emotionally refined, not toward assertions of cultural status as a commercial dummy. "That's not really me," this rudimentary self-portrait declares, its unexpected candor running contrary to the very genre of portraiture.
A slightly earlier manifestation of the department store mannequin motif is also on view. This undressed, anatomically incorrect mannequin has been pointedly "corrected" by the artist. At first, the hyper-realistic genitals on the otherwise schematic dummy are startling; soon, it is the hyper-phoniness of the idealized dummy itself, with its typical department store style, that seems truly odd. Ray's addition to this bizarre creature, which was initially designed to be a surrogate for you and me, unearths an implied duet between idealization and taboo.
Technically, the obvious \o7 tour de force\f7 at Burnett Miller Gallery is a wonderful mechanized carousel titled "Revolution Counter-Revolution." The base of a child-size merry-go-round rotates clockwise, at a fairly good clip. Four pairs of suspended ponies and two swings, all empty and awaiting riders, also rotate, but in the opposite direction. Ray has calibrated the speed ratio of these two conflicting rotations so the riderless steeds appear nearly stationary, suspended in space as the ground plane rushes away. Almost imperceptibly, the horses inch forward, as if against an unseen but overwhelming inertia.