Last couple trips to Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, I had admired Charles Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture — the depth and total flatness of the gray primer covering every square millimeter of the wrecked vehicle (down to the primer-gray “Jesus is Lord” emblem on the back lip of the trunk) is totally enveloping.
Nothing is as it seems; yesterday realized the wreck isn’t what I thought it was at all. Ray did purchase a wreck from a junk yard. But he didn’t paint it. Instead, he disassembled it bit by bit, cast every last junked part in flat gray fiberglass, then painstakingly re-assembled the car from fiberglass simulacra over the course of two years.
He has said of his past work that he was trying to â€œmake something that was so abstract it became real and so real that it became abstract.â€
This photo doesn’t do it justice – you’ve got to get up close to see just how convincing the final product is. So now the concept — and the awareness of the labor — that went into this work deeply affects the way I perceive it. I no longer see a painted wreck, something virtually anyone could have done. I now see a thoughtful representation of a wreck — but one that looks exactly like a painted wreck that anyone could have done.
I want to believe that art speaks and stands for itself, that it needs no back-story to explain itself. But this wreck — or wreck-representation — makes that impossible. The back-story changed my eyes.
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The ghostly gray of the car also fits another part of the backstory: the car was involved in a fatal accident (a drunk driver, I’ve heard). Ray says, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I wondered if there were ghosts, would the ghost inhabit the actual physical molecules of the structure, or would it be more interested in inhabiting the topology or geometry of the structure? You know, if you were to duplicate the geometry, would the ghost follow?”