Leaning against the lectern and peering hazily out at the audience, artist Charles Ray cut a vague, disheveled figure at his Newport Harbor Art Museum lecture Wednesday night.
But his shambling demeanor disguised a mind that doggedly ruminates on issues pertaining to physics, psychology and philosophy--and tosses them back to the viewer in highly idiosyncratic sculptures. His laconic art messes with the viewer's mind in warped ways, like something out of a sci-fi movie.
The Los Angeles artist, who was born in 1953, started out as a figurative sculptor working in painted steel. But there was "an aspect of it that really bothered me," he said. The stuff was just too pretty, too finished. "It looked like Christmas morning with a bunch of presents or candy lying around."
The turning point came in the '70s when his younger brother died and Ray made a piece in memory of him. "It just seemed like a bunch of s---," he said. "It had more to do with art than with any kind of 'felt-ness.' " He began making stacked pieces that stayed put only because of their weight and compression, and someone said it was interesting to watch him work. These were already incorporating some of the elements of performance art, because of the risk implied for the viewer. The relationship between the spectator and the work intrigued Ray.
"In Memory of Sadat" was the first of his new series. He inserted his body into two steel boxes placed an eighth of an inch apart. The only visible body parts were one forearm and hand, which extended along the top of one box, and one shin and foot, which extended along the top of the other box. ("I labored over it for months working out the exact proportions.")
It was 1981; Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, had just been assassinated. And the sculpture struck Ray as having "an Egyptian feel to it" because of the references of the body parts to hieroglyphics and the double boxes to a tomb.
But the piece also had a link to the old sawing-the-lady-in-half magic trick: "It felt like there was nobody in there." This hoary entertainment intrigued him because it is utterly dependent on the audience's willingness to suspend its sense of reality.
Ray began to believe that the relationship of the viewer to his piece was more important than the image itself. Using a real body gave the piece "a present-ness, an event-ness, a reality," he said.
Other works in this series incorporate contraptions that attach his nude body to stripped-down pieces of furniture. Portions of his body were painted to resemble metal or were blocked from view. In a couple of these pieces, his head was encased in a sort of metal helmet.
This added "an aspect of social disjunction," he said. Viewers were free to stare at his private parts, but he was unable to stare back at them.
The finished pieces delighted him in their "ludicrousness," he said. They were about taking "a real event--a domestic situation--and compress(ing) it into an object."
But he was not entirely pleased with this body of work. Being inside the pieces was "incredibly boring or painful," he said. The pieces were not about achieving any particular kind of mental state. And showing them (in alternative art spaces) involved more "elaborate architecture" and theatrical trappings than he had bargained for.
He didn't want viewers to watch him being helped into the pieces or removed from them, so he built a "storage" room where he could prepare and a waiting room for viewers to congregate in between the 15-minute-long tableaux.
After floundering around for a while, he made "Viral Research," which is in the Newport Harbor exhibit of his recent work. The idea of "contamination" came to him when his girlfriend's ex-husband died of AIDS, he said. Eventually, he came up with a piece in which the bottoms of a series of glass beakers and the table top on which they rest were drilled so that fluids would pass through them to a network of glass conduits underneath the table.
The piece also could be seen as a highly refined still life in the manner of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, Ray suggested--or as an example of the "sophomoric physics of water seeking its own level."
Throughout his talk, he suggested multiple allusions for each piece but avoided suggesting any definitive meanings--a function of his interest in allowing the viewer's experience with the work to establish its own logic.
Ray mentioned the "neurotic desire" the viewer has to touch "Ink Box" once its trick is evident. (The box appears to be a glossy painted cube, but it is actually a box holding 200 gallons of ink.) He emphasized the piece's potential for "disruption" and--almost under his breath--suggested that there might be a connection with the disruptive potential of printed material.
The fragility of organized systems and their potential for disruption is the sub-text of much of Ray's work. Peering into an empty aluminum box ("32 x 33 x 35 equals 34 x 33 x 35"), the viewer may eventually realize its proportions are seriously out of whack. Looking at a circle cut into the wall ("Rotating Circle"), you may finally realize that it is moving too fast to be seen, yet this information still lends no meaning to the work.
When Galileo began doing his work in gravity, Ray said, "people stopped asking 'why' and started asking 'how.' " His method of investigating the "how" involves a certain amount of drug consumption, Ray candidly told the audience, most of whom were middle-age and older.
He thought up "Tabletop" during a period when he was smoking a lot of dope, he said, which caused him to fall asleep a lot. It took "a good month and a half," he said seriously. "It wasn't wasted work."
Each of the objects in "Tabletop" --a piece that looks like the most ordinary of still lifes (a plate, flower pot, salt cellar, etc. on a table)--actually revolves, either clockwise or counterclockwise, at a very slow speed. Ultimately, Ray said, the viewer accustomed to quick glimpses of art has to enter a drastically slowed-down state to understand the piece.
"My intention is to do the most by doing the least," he said.