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COVER STORY

More Than Meets the Eye

A Steel Cube Filled With Ink. A Life-Size Car Wreck. An 8-Foot-Tall Woman. A Feeling of Unease Arises From Everything Charles Ray Creates.

July 26, 1998|KRISTINE MCKENNA | Kristine McKenna's last article for the magazine was a profile of installation artist Robert Irwin

Charles Ray steps from his hotel in lower Manhattan and turns uptown, heading to work on the biggest exhibition of his career, and perhaps other unpleasantness. The wiry, intense Los Angeles sculptor decides to walk the 50 blocks to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is installing a major retrospective of his work. Yet halfway uptown, he passes two freshly spilled cups of coffee. He stops and stares, trying to puzzle out the human drama that ended with puddles on the sidewalk. He's fascinated. A few blocks later he stops to peer through the window of a church whose modern architecture intrigues him.

Ray may be Southern California's hottest artist at the moment; his works are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars; he is enmeshed on this spring day in the machinery of Manhattan's culture industry. Yet on the way to the museum, his mind wanders to subjects far more mundane. Perhaps they are more appealing than the task awaiting him at the museum, which he clearly does not relish. "Getting the shows installed, making sure the work's in good shape, arguing with curators--it takes a lot out of you," he says in an interview later. "Being in a room full of my art makes me incredibly nervous because the work always gets damaged when it's shown, and I hate my openings."

Besides, he adds, "The social aspect of being an artist has always made me uncomfortable."

That makes this a very uncomfortable year indeed for the reticent sculptor, whose show opened at the Whitney in June and moves on to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on Nov. 15. His monochrome replica of a crashed car and his big toy firetruck and his towering woman mannequin and his spinning circle of beige and his narcissistic orgy sculpture and his steel cube filled with ink, considered by many his "breakthrough" piece in 1986, have reached a moment for critical appraisal by the art world. After years of being seen by the insular circles of artists, critics and collectors, Ray's work is being presented in major events, to be reviewed by the world at large. For most artists, this would be a moment of achievement and excitement. But for Ray, it is pure anxiety.

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In New York City, a few days before his opening at the Whitney, I find Ray nervously pacing the galleries on the fourth floor. Two dozen people are bustling about. Everything looks on track, but Ray doesn't seem to be having much fun. "I feel sick," he mutters to one of the crew. Passing through the entry gallery, he spots two workers silk-screening his name onto the wall. "It seems a bit big, don't you think?" he says to no one in particular.

It's at precisely this point--when his works are being installed for public view--that Ray is forced to relinquish control, and it obviously sets him more on edge. "I'm not allowed to touch any of the work unless a Whitney representative is present, because none of it belongs to me anymore," he explains with a shrug.

The 1990 work, "7 1/2-ton Cube"--which weighs what its title suggests--has to be gingerly scooted into place along a meticulous track that traces the support beams in the Whitney, lest it go crashing into the basement.

Equally challenging is the installation of "Unpainted Sculpture," which Ray made by buying a wrecked 1992 Pontiac Grand Am, dismantling it, casting hundreds of pieces in fiberglass, reassembling the molded pieces using photographs of the disassembly process as a guide, then finishing it with two coats of spectral gray primer paint.

To get the fragile sculpture into the museum, the Whitney hired structural engineer Peter Higgins, who designed a system to hoist the piece--which weighs more than a real car--up an elevator shaft at the Whitney. This little maneuver carries a price tag of $40,000, and Ray is visibly relieved when the nerve-racking procedure is over.

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Ray's work is as strange as it is strong, and it evokes power- ful responses, including from those who perceive it as silly or far-fetched. Like a businessman who goes about the day with a mouse tucked inside a pocket, Ray's work harbors secrets, and there's usually more going on than first meets the eye.

Take the 1988 work "Rotating Circle." The piece appears to be nothing more than a circle drawn on the wall. Yet what you're looking at is a motorized disc set flush within the wall's surface, spinning so fast that it appears stationary. Described as "genuinely disconcerting" by Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, the piece gives off a whiff of menace that permeates everything Ray produces.

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