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Charles Ray Retrospective

The Charles Ray retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is, at first glance, very simple. The viewer sees a number of works that seem to have very little to them: some mannequins, a painted wrecked car, a solid black cube, a table with a few ordinary objects on it. But hardly any of these objects turn out to be what they seem. Slower, more careful consideration of each of Ray's pieces rewards the viewer as twists and misdirections are revealed, as connections with the art of the past are evoked, and as the viewer comes to see meanings that were not apparent at first glance. Overall the Ray exhibition is a thoroughly challenging collection of works that invite the viewer to think about the course art has taken in the postmodern era.

Ray's art exerts no traditional appeal to the senses in terms of beauty of form, line, or color. In fact, the mundane nature of most of the objects in the exhibit tends to repel the viewer's interest. Pieces such as his 1990 Self-Portrait or the 1988 Tabletop would not raise any interest in most settings. Ultimately this is very important because any initial interest the viewer feels in them is entirely due to their presence in a museum and their presentation as art. In any other setting Ray's process of replacing the mannequin's head with his portrait and dressing it in his favorite clothes would be unnoticed, and the turning objects on the Tabletop would be easily ignored. Thus, it soon becomes clear that Ray's art involves a questioning of the nature of art in general and of the traditions that produced the works Western civilization has valued so highly. A discussion of three of Ray's pieces--Tabletop, Self-Portrait, and Family Romance (1993)--will demonstrate how his art addresses the past and makes a concentrated effort to engage the contemporary viewer.

Tabletop (1988) is a sculpture consisting of a wooden table bearing some objects (ceramic plate, metal canis...

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