Charles Ray and Martin Puryear have very little in common. But they are both working consistently with a specific sculptural trope:How do I take this thing and turn it into another thing that is an idea. That is not a representation of this thing, but is more about why I can't stop looking at it in the first place?
What is the existential significance of looking at something, of holding it in your hand? What does that interaction prove? And how does that meaning transmit to a larger culture of people who, like sculptors, look at and hold things?
Puryear is really lyrical and dreamy about this questioning. He moves from wheelbarrow, or head, or tool, to African sculpture, to the material itself (usually wood) to structural concerns like a volume's inside and outside...
...he's doing two things. He's staying pretty well within the ideas you find while making the thing--he's using sculpture to talk about sculpture. And his thinking is in no way rigid. He's no conceptualist--he's not out there to make sense. He's in it for the music.
Charles Ray is a conceptual sculptor. He endeavors to make a very specific, even narrow, kind of sense, and is harnessing the language of sculpture to the world of seeing that we all share. His work is much easier to pick apart in terms of how it imbues a thing with meaning. Unpainted Sculpture
is an almost exact replica of a car that someone died in. Every single piece was taken out of the car, catalogued, re-created in clay, cast, and then the car was rebuilt, in an effort to understand the mystery of the death car. What you get, of course, is a car that is not quite right because every piece has been translated by a carver, and this imbues the car, which once had this mystical allure of death, with a new, literal uncanniness of strange fit. Hinoki
began as a real fallen tree that struck Ray with its Platonic power. It felt like The Fallen Tree to him, not just any old tree, but the original from which that idea of "fallen tree" is stamped in your mind. So he took it out of some guy's field and brought it to his studio, made an extremely intricate mold of it, cast it in a material that would travel well (fiberglass?) and sent that new representation of the tree--the one that would not fall apart--to Japan. Where it was reproduced by expert carvers in wood. Specifically, hinoki. The best Japanese wood. The kind of wood that you make a casket or a temple out of in Japan.
A Charles Ray sculpture is, generally, about the story of its making. And it contains questions about how it is that we make a thing or perceptual moment meaningful. Is it in the act of looking, like the moment of driving past this tree and seeing its iconic power? Or is this power to create meaning about effort on our part? Is it that effort to imbue an object with meaning that Ray is striving to reproduce as he creates iterations upon his iterations?
I like Charles Ray's work because I like its fastidiousness, its total commitment to the idea that the logic of sculpture can explain these unexplainables, like how it is that the car itself is rendered creepy once someone dies in it, or where, exactly, the platonic ideal of the fallen tree was located. In its shape? In its woodenness? Inside of Ray as he drove by, or in the tree itself, now thrown away and replaced with a much more perfect replica? Ray seems to define sculpture as the physical evidence of a set of specific spatial questions. It's about relationships: you and the thing. The thing and its meaning. And so on.
Puryear is older and is working with a different paradigm, so he does not need to go to this questioning place. Like a good modernist should, he takes it as a given that he imbues things with meaning, which is why he can play so well, and work so easily with abstraction. Instead of rigorously questioning the mystery of thing into icon, he plays with how exactly that process works on a formal level. The result is a sculpture in the easiest sense of the word. Puryear seems to define sculpture as a thing that takes information from the world of things in a physical way, so that its very thingness is conceptual and actual at the same time.
I like Puryear's work because it has a high fun-to-effort ratio. It's whistle-while-you-work sculpture that glorifies the actual looking and doing instead of getting all meta about the what labor does
, or what looking is
. Besides, because Puryear is actually shouldering the intellectual burden of creating that meaning
(because he's The Imbuer)
instead of making work that questions this role, he has a lot of freedom.
Ray is making work that is much more relevant to me and my experience of the world. At a time when we are so obviously damaging the world with our ideas of it, it makes more sense to question that capacity for humans to make meaning in the world than it does to take it as a universal truth.
But is it possible to find any of that Puryear-style freedom in this questioning?