Charles Ray, June 4-Aug 30, 1998, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
The great stock-car racer Richard Petty was nearly killed in a crash that left his car bizarrely standing on end. Years later (as I recall from a long-ago sports page), an impudent reporter put a photo of the wreck in front of Petty and asked, "What do you feel when you see this?"
"I don't feel anything," Petty drawled. "That's just a car." He went on to remark that he hated cars, whose chief tendency in his experience was to break.
A worker's tool is not the worker. Only weenies invest their egos in things.
I thought of Petty's superb attitude while viewing Charles Ray's masterpiece sculpture of a crashed car in this spare, powerful show of some of the Los Angeles artist's greatest hits since 1973. I thought of much else, too. Ray is both the most laconic and the most resonant of contemporary sculptors.
Unpainted Sculpture is a painted fiberglass cast -- done piecemeal and assembled -- of a Pontiac Grand Am that was involved in a fatal collision. The car's front wheels are turned right to avoid whatever it was that, catching the front end at an angle from the left, made a vertical salad of the engine compartment.
The sickening split second of catastrophe is memorialized forever in awesomely crushed and lyrically crumpled shapes. Violence sculpted this thing. Ray simply assisted after the fact.
Why call "unpainted" an object that is painted a uniform light gray? The title points to an ironic effect of the pigment. In how we experience it, the sculpture indeed feels un- or perhaps de-painted: stripped of surface qualities by an additive process.
Unpainted Sculpture's negative patina reminds me of the naked marble of Greek classical carvings, whose grayish white was rapturously admired before archaeologists proved that the originals had, in fact, been painted. Greek antiquity interests Ray. I think that he here offers a vernacular American equivalent fit for our Acropolis, if we had one.
The key to Greek sculptural genius is a double whammy: utmost, vivacious realism coincident with utmost, exalted abstraction. It gives a visceral feel of real bodies in action while everywhere simplifying and idealizing bodily features. It appeals to gut and head simultaneously; seeming at once specific and general.
How did they do it? No one in over two millennia -- not even Michelangelo -- has really brought off the Athenian trick again. Most who have tried made too big a deal of it. As Ray plainly understands, an essential trick of the trick is to make it look easy.
My first reaction to Unpainted Sculpture -- as I came to the end of this show's series of greater and lesser, exquisitely calibrated esthetic shocks -- was boredom. How obvious! What a tedious one-line joke! I seemed to know everything about the work before I started looking at it. And in a way I did.
We know what cars are, and Newtonian predictions about objects in motion do not mystify us. A car wreck is a car wreck, unless iconized in a painting by Andy Warhol or fetishized in J.G. Ballard's hilariously solemn Crash. The thing in itself is banal until we make something symbolic or perverse, or both, of it.
Ray makes sculpture of it, period. His meticulous registration of a defunct sedan says nothing directly about anything. It exists to occasion long and careful contemplation, whose issue is an experience of awful beauty.
Start with what isn't there. Color and texture, for instance. Everything is the same nonchromatic nonstuff that reduces engine and upholstery to material identity. Then there is the fact, noted by an alert companion of mine at the Whitney, that no account is given of anything that may have flown or fallen off a vehicle that was edited by impact and by the vicissitudes of conveyance to a junkyard.
A cavity in the center of the steering wheel testifies to an expended air bag. If the driver was wearing a seatbelt, too, he or she may have survived. The car's improbably intact interior pays heartening tribute to contemporary auto engineering. Meanwhile, minor damage to the car's right side and rear baffles. I can't imagine how that occurred.
Someone died in the crash, Ray says. Does this make Unpainted Sculpture ethically dicey? No, except by a lazily sentimental projection. This is not a car. No atom of the actual wreck, let alone of its occupant or occupants, is present. Nothing and no one are disrespected. The sculpture is antisensational, pure artifice.
A viewer's inevitable reflections on death by mishap, the regular bloody by-product of our high-speed society, are thus purely disembodied, too. Having segued from boredom to fascination in my response to the piece, I underwent a momentary, hardly escapable onset of horror -- as the accumulated visual data triggered in my imagination a vividly exact replay of the crash. but the shudder came from me, not from Ray. His handiwork was wholly passive to it.
Passive aggression, raised to heights of the sublime, may be Ray's ruling artistic principle. From what looks like a glossy black cube but is a box filled with ink, through seductive mannequins that each have one thing stunningly "wrong" about them, we confront elegant, deadpan fabrications that flip wild switches in our minds. Those switches stay flipped. Once you have gotten works by Ray, you keep getting them until it is time to go home.
I have addressed just one item in the show because I believe that all of Ray's works function similarly -- with some particular concatenation of realism and abstraction, factuality and surprise -- and that you don't need a critic to explain them to you. Just stay with each piece long enough to have more than one reaction. You will feel taken in hand and led, step by precise step, down the ladder of your esthetic capacity.
Ray is a hard-nosed pragmatist, formalist and real pro -- like Richard Petty. He regularly frustrates interviewers by declining to associate himself with the completed forms of his creative adventures. His taciturnity can seem pretty weird apropos, say, a roomful of life-sized Charles Rays afrolic in group sex, but you should believe it. Heroic detachment is Ray's racing edge. It makes him a winner almost every time out.
The exhibition is to appear next at its organizing institution, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and end its tour at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.