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Joan Rothfuss discusses Charles Ray's Unpainted Sculpture (1997)


Joan Rothfuss


September 1999

Institution Walker Art Center
The Charlie Ray car is the work that we start out the last gallery with, which is the gallery that's supposed to represent the current, what's going on now and what younger artists are looking at and thinking about. It's a very provocative and challenging object to come upon because it's a full-scale sculpture that looks like a crashed car, which is what it is. Maybe a place to start thinking about it is in comparison to the Johns' flashlight because both of them are common objects or objects that everybody is familiar with and sees everyday, but they're sort of ghost images of those objects. They're both monochromed out in a single color and they're, both of them, not the object itself but a naturalistic rendition, a copy, of the object that was to begin with and a cast of it. The Johns' object, I think, is nothing like what Ray is going after. Johns' is after something that's emptied out. This car that Ray has made is not empty at all because it's a very specific car. It's not a generic car. It's a copy of an actual car from a fatal car crash. Some very specific person has lost their life in this car. Right away, you have a history of some one connected with this object.

But, it also, I think, really speaks to our whole century, both of the artistic practice that's occurred from the beginning of the century to now to the cultural fascination with speed, the cultural fascination with motion, the violence that has begun to be prominent at the end of the century. All those things are in there. Ray's car, I think, has to refer to John Chamberlain's crushed car sculptures in some way; but, again, Chamberlain, like Johns', was using the crushed the car in a way that does not carry a lot of associations. He simply took it as material and a lot of times, you can't tell that John Chamberlain's crushed car sculptures are even made of cars. It's not clear. They become abstractions. In the beginning of the century, the Italian Futurist Movement talked about speed and motion and machinery as being the things that would carry artistic and cultural practice forward into the twentieth century and they were glorifying speed and they glorified the machine. I think that Ray's car, in a way, is a negation, a repudiation, of what the futurists said and an acknowledgement that that modernism that they spoke about, the modernism that they hoped to begin with the futurist manifestos and all of the Machine Age kind of art that they produced, failed and that that is now clearly not going to take us forward. So, it's a melancholy piece. It's not like anything else that Ray has produced that I've seen, except that it has to do with the altering of your perception of what this object normally looks like to you. In other words, it's a car, but it's actually a ghost image of the car, a cast of the car. Otherwise, it's very full in the content that he's presenting and I think you could see it as a very end of millennium object and a very tragic object.

Ray's other work is very much about sculpture; it's always sculpture. It's dealing with space, but it deals with perception as well. Ray makes things that seem to be one thing and turn out to be another: a chair that seems to be a holding up a big plate of glass but, then, you can't tell if the glass is holding up the chair; a table that seems to hold objects that are stationary but, then, they turn out to be moving, circulating; rooms that hold photographs that are distorted so that you can't tell what the space is that you're standing in. They're about space and perception and mass and void. The car has all those aspects, but it's got this other very strong content that seems new. I think where Charlie Ray has kind of outdone himself is with this car. I think it's really a fantastic piece. I'll be curious to see what he does as a follow up.

I don't believe that Ray knew the person who was killed in the crash. I think he chose the car from a junk yard. I don't know if the junk yard held only cars from fatal crashes-probably not. He chose the car from a junk yard and knew the history by talking to the dealer that he got it from. I don't think he chose it because of the history of the person who was killed in it; but, it's reproduced down to the last detail . . . things spilled out of the pocketbook on the floor, which all, I guess, were still with the car in the junk yard. Every little piece has been fabricated and recast and, then, put back together. It's kind of an amazing piece of labor and a meditation I suppose, while he was making it, about mortality and about the death of all of these specific and general things in the culture.

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Type: Commentary, curatorial commentary
Source: Joan Rothfuss, Associate Curator of Visual Arts, Walker Art Center, commenting on Charles Ray's Unpainted Sculpture (1997), during the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 1999.
Rights: Copyright 1999 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009