Even if you haven't yet seen the Charles Ray’s sculpture retrospective at the Art Institute, you probably have heard of it. The giant exhibit features 15 years of work by the acclaimed Chicago–born, Los Angeles–based artist, many of them lifelike reproductions of real people in cast metals such as steel and aluminum.
“I call them my babies,” announced a gallery guard to no one in particular on my recent visit to the exhibit. She, the enthusiastic guardian of a naked man crouching (Shoe Tie, 2012), delighted in barking at viewers not to get too close to his silky silver body. But you’ll want to get as close as possible to the exquisite nude figures. They are a joy to see in context of the museum’s encyclopedic collection, especially in contrast to a nearby exhibit of ancient Greek and Roman torsos, which, chiseled from marble 2,000 years ago, are more modestly clothed than Ray’s nude figurines.
Ray's depictions of naked men and women have elicited equal parts delight and discomfort. Five years ago, Ray pulled out of a major commission by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which had commissioned the artist to fill the public courtyard at its new location in New York. Ray’s proposal, for a larger-than-life scene from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, shows 14-year-old Huck and his 28-year-old friend Jim without clothing; Jim’s hand hovers over Huck’s bare back as he crouches to scoop an imaginary substance, not depicted. The Whitney “deemed this sculpture to be inappropriate for its proposed outdoor location,” according to the artist’s statement in the museum catalog, so Huck and Jim made its debut in Chicago. The New Yorker recently elaborated on the Whitney Museum’s alleged concerns: “This particular image of a naked African-American man and a naked white teenager in close proximity, presented in a public space with no other art works to provide context, might offend non-museum going visitors.”
Ray’s sculpture will forever be linked with the Whitney’s prude rejection of the outdoor work. (Consider that three naked female torsos, by Jim Dine, stand nearby the entrance to MoMA—and nobody’s ever called them perverted.)
“Can the viewer negotiate the sexual politics?” asked Ray of his Huck and Jim, in the exhibit catalog. No stranger to the sexual politics of art, Ray produced an orgy of nine realistic and naked self-portraits in 1992 (not on view), but Huck and Jim is different—if there is child sexuality or pedophilia present in the work, then it’s borne out of the viewer’s understanding of the work, not the artist's intention. As for Huck and Jim, they’ve always been naked—“we was always naked, day and night,” says Huck in the novel. Their nakedness was their newfound freedom as runaways.
The correct word for Huck and Jim’s brazen friendship is homosocial, a nonsexual physical encounter among males. (I.E. “Bromance.”) Towering nine feet tall, Ray’s monument to Twain’s great American novel hopes to challenge and change the undying discomfort in America with male nudity.
Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014, runs through October 4 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S Michigan. artic.edu