charles ray

2019.29 (Charles Ray, Hinoki)

            I’ve been in four car wrecks in my life. One of them was my fault. I was 16 and had skipped Sunday school to go to a donut shop with some other kids and hit another car when exiting the parking lot. That’s what you get for skipping Southern Baptist Sunday school. Instant judgment.

            The other three were not my fault. When I was in college, I was driving down the main road that cut through the entire town when an elderly woman, coming from the opposite direction, turned left in front of me and I didn’t have time to stop. I t-boned her car. She told the officer, “I had the turn signal.” I said, “I had a green light.” The officer spent a grand total of 30 seconds thinking about it and said, “Well, no one was at fault here so you’ll each have to take care of your own cars...and, sir, do you mind driving this lady home to her house?” I drove the woman that had just mauled my car back to her house. It was a 15-minute drive and the only thing we had in common was that she had just caused our wreck. We talked about her grandchildren. It seemed a better option than me hammering her for 15 minutes with statements like, “Just admit it’s your fault, you old bag!”

            On the way back to campus, my car started overheating. I pulled into a student parking lot and it died a convulsive death right as I hit the parking space, complete with a puff of steam emerging from the hood. A tow truck met me in the lot a couple of days later to take my car for repairs. I saw a hole in the door to the trunk that wasn’t there before. I said, “I wonder how that hole got there?” The tow truck driver said, “Uh, that’s a bullet hole.” Well, leave that. I need the street cred.  

            The other two were more recent. I got hit from behind by a student at the school where I teach. This past March I had a tractor trailer veer into my lane and drag his tires down the entire length of my car, totaling it while it somehow still remained drivable. Being rear-ended was an annoyance and an inconvenience more than anything. The 18-wheeler collision brought out a lot of “Thank you, Jesus!” expressions and infinite gratitude from me. So many things could have gone the wrong way. Despite the driver hitting me, he also reacted quickly enough to not pin me between his truck and the concrete divider on the other side of my car. He dragged the side of my car but turned away after 2-3 seconds and saved both of us.

Tennessee Electronic Traffic Crash Report, 2019

Tennessee Electronic Traffic Crash Report, 2019

            I ordered a copy of the highway patrol report for this. It is clinical and factual but does not tell the whole story. We are listed as “Unit 1” and “Unit 2”. There’s a diagram of the accident that reminds me of the Spy Hunter video game. There isn’t a section of the report documenting me cursing and hitting the horn like I was sending Morse code, trying to get the truck to pull over. It’s like looking at a box score for a baseball game. You know the balls, strikes and where the ball went but you don’t know how amazing an outfield catch might have been (like this almost amazing Mike Trout play) or if a second baseman tricked a base runner to get him running. The humanity of the game is missing, but the moneyball is there. Same with this accident report. The report would not have a different tone if there would have been a fatality. It would record the death. I don’t expect highway patrol to write a poem but having such an impactful moment of your life reduced to something so by-the-numbers is humbling and disturbing. The absence of humanity in the report calls attention to the fact that the human experience is not recorded.

             I’ve lost two family members to drivers that were under the influence of something: drugs, alcohol, etc. I’m not going to talk about one but, I will explain my grandmother’s death. My parents and I were at home on Sunday, February 8, 1987 watching a basketball game between the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. My dad’s side of the family, since at least the 1950s, has been devoted to UNC athletics. UNC and UVA battled it out into overtime, with UNC edging them out 74-73. My grandmother, uncle, aunt, two cousins and one of their friends had gone to the game. They had taken two cars to get there, with my grandmother driving one of the cars and my uncle driving the other. I remember the genuine joy of watching that game on TV. It ended but my parents and I kept watching whatever came on afterwards. My brother was at church doing some youth program. About an hour after the game, my uncle called to tell us that my grandmother was dead, killed in a car wreck. Later we’d find out that the driver was under the influence and had crossed the center line and hit the car, head on, going about 80mph. My grandmother was instantly killed. The effects of finding out about the death hang with me more than the death itself, if that’s possible. Not the death, but the moments after finding out about it.

            I made art centered around this when I was young. I didn’t drink in college. I was the unofficial designated driver of the Knoxville music scene. I kept so many of your drunk asses off the road at 1:00-2:00AM that I should probably get a key to the city. It took me a long time, off and on, by myself, to reconcile that I believe in a truly loving God and that life can seem so cruel at the same time. That both are possible and coexist. I never doubted either. One does not cancel out the other. But as a teenager and college kid, it’s a lot of work to thread that needle. I spent too much time thinking about the what-ifs, just of the basketball game. It went into overtime. What if one more free throw had been made in regulation, or one missed shot had gone in or one made shot had rattled out of the rim. Those two cars would have never crossed paths. I don’t know how long a state highway patrol keeps records, but at one point there was a sterile incident report about my grandmother sitting in a filing cabinet, one fatality recorded- unit 2.

             Sometimes your brain has to stretch to connect with a work of art. More is required of you than the art. Some art puts a bloody body on a cross and shouts out to you “JESUS!” while other times, it’s a room saturated with projected light and you have to find that part of you that lives beyond the expression of language to connect with it. But when you carry certain baggage then a piece will make you stop in your tracks.

             Is Charles Ray really going for that? His work swings on a pendulum in that respect. Intensely performative at point. Silly at another. But like most artists of any medium- painting, poetry, music- he has shed that immature swagger and start looking for something a bit more poetic and understated. Ray has burned off that juvenile ego over the past 25 years and produced work that can be described as tender, quiet, and nostalgic in some cases, no matter what kind of controversy he occasionally creates or how ambitious the scale or intense the process of creation.

Charles Ray-  Unpainted Sculpture , fiberglass and paint, 60x78x171”, 1997, Walker Art Center

Charles Ray- Unpainted Sculpture, fiberglass and paint, 60x78x171”, 1997, Walker Art Center

             I can go in an obvious direction with this post related to Charles Ray: Unpainted Sculpture from 1997. The pre-internet legend of this piece is that he bought a wrecked car that (probably) involved a fatality. Look at it. What did the inside look like when he got it if it really had a death related to it? A bloody mess. Not a British “bloody” mess. A real bloody mess. I’m confused on the specifics but, his team took it apart, made a cast of every part and then tried to assemble all the cast parts back together to simulate the wreck but the pieces were all thicker as fiberglass than steel so he had to adjust them somehow. The “somehow” in that sentence is a mystery to me. Looking at this piece, initially, is like looking at a highway patrol report. It is factual. It is monochrome. The sterility of it draws attention to the humanity that is missing. You might be able to see the damage of the car more clearly in this sculpture than in the original when it was a mass of tangled metal and didn’t know what part belonged where. Looking at a wrecked car is not an artistic experience. There is rubbernecking but not for any good reason. I pass a wrecker lot every week that proudly(?) displays the biggest wreck they have at the front of the lot. Maybe they mean it as a warning sign. Either way, I don’t get John Chamberlain vibes from it. With Ray, it’s a quiet reflection. A lot of people put in a lot of time to bring this to you. There is great purpose behind it. It’s kind of a postmodern sculpture and a monument to loss all in one. A ghost of a wreck. It’s not a singular car wreck anymore. It’s bigger than that. But I’m bringing a lifetime of baggage to it. If you never got that phone call, you are going to see this differently. But that’s not the Ray that punched me in the gut. His version of a crucifixion did not make me raise my hands in ecstatic joy or praise. I like it. It hit home in a specific way but it’s not the piece that stays with me.

Charles Ray-  Hinoki , cypress, 60x300x92'“/25x168x82”/25x150x78”, 1997-2007, The Art Institute of Chicago

Charles Ray- Hinoki, cypress, 60x300x92'“/25x168x82”/25x150x78”, 1997-2007, The Art Institute of Chicago

             Hinoki is something I show in class and generates one reaction as an image projected on a screen: complete and total rejection. Eyes roll, pens drop to the table, people that were leaned forward and paying attention now lean back, phone passcodes are punched in and screens illuminate. I get it. You know how worthless it is to talk about art with a projector screen? You know how much more worthless it is to talk about sculpture with a projector screen? To describe this piece, you have to say something like, “Here’s an image of a dead tree, but it’s not a dead tree. He saw the dead tree, made a mold and cast of it and then paid some master Japanese wood carvers to faithfully carve a duplicate of that cast of the dead tree in virgin wood. I know you look like you want to die right now, but seriously this is great if you see it in person. Can you trust me? No. What do you mean ‘No?”” Such is the life of an art appreciation instructor. If you have no experience of letting yourself project meaning upon an object, then the whole discussion of art is lost for you. I don’t mean worship an object or make an idol of it. I just mean allowing yourself to think something as simple as, “I’ve had this blue coffee mug for the 20 years of my marriage and it’s chipped and imperfect but it represents the routine of marriage and its continued presence speaks to the unbroken day-in, day-out of a steady, strengthening bond with another person.”

            It is difficult as a teacher, with a PowerPoint and a projector, to get this to translate. I often wonder how I would respond to my own class. I took a number of art history classes. I fell asleep. It was dark. It was air conditioned. Neither my dorm nor apartment were climate-controlled. I was tired and we had a slide projector with a whirring fan that lulled me to sleep. I guess that’s how I’d react to my own class.

            Hinoki is something I’d read about before seeing. I understood the commitment to its creation. That more than anything should always let you know about the sincerity of some work: some art just takes a long time to make and there is no guarantee of “reward” at the end, yet it gets made. It’s one thing to paint the Sistine Chapel because it’s a place of worship and the ceiling will serve a purpose in enhancing that worship. No one, no one is clamoring for a carved replica of a dead tree. To make it at all is to prove your commitment.

            Standing in the room with Hinoki was humbling and much different than reading about it or seeing a jpeg of it. It’s a faithful recreation of a fallen tree. How many times have you walked by a fallen tree? If the answer is “not many” then you need to find a state park and take a walk. But for those of you with somewhat regular hiking/walking experience, you know what it’s like. You walk through the woods and you see a dozen fallen trees on a given day. If you go back 6 months later, they are still there. They are going to be there for years, feeding the forest. You probably don’t carry memories of these trees. But Ray did make that memory. Something in his brain said, “That is a remarkable fallen tree for reasons that far exceed the tree itself.”

            We have an established phrase for the idea of impermanence and whether or not any of us matter: “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is there to hear it...” The answer should give you some sense of comfort. Of course, it does. It’s physics and science and all that crap. You think something doesn’t make a sound just because ears aren’t there to hear it? Do you know how sound works? Do you matter if no one else thinks you do? Of course, you do.

            I had one thought upon seeing this work in person. It reminded me of a sermon that I once heard and a pastor said, “We are all 80 years from being totally forgotten.” That’s not a Bible verse nor was it the point of the sermon. Some off-the-cuff statements stick with you above the intended thesis. My great-grandmother that drew the Landseer that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago: I don’t even know her entire name. She has had a significant impact on my life without ever knowing her, but I couldn’t tell you her entire name. It’s all goes so fast and does not last, for better or worse. Sometimes that’s a good thing. We need to forget some dirtbags. But quiet, unpresuming people get lost in the shuffle. That’s not horrible. They deliberately lived that way. Like another pastor said, “I’m pretty sure heaven is going to be full of little old ladies that spent the majority of their days praying by themselves.”

            Hinoki takes the idea of your impermanence and places it on the ground in front of you in a very ambitious, yet humble way. The creation of this piece is masterful and tedious. The presentation is muted and reserved. It’s untreated wood. Monochromatic. Simple. It is quiet. If you are by yourself in the gallery, it might even be quieter than the woods where its original form was witnessed. And at that point, you might have the same thought I had, which crassly put was, “Holy sh*t, people are going to know this tree lived and died long after they have forgotten about me.” Life is beautiful. God is good. Life can also appear to be cruel. But to quote Matt Chandler, “We are bit, loved players in a divine epic”. I’m happy  to teach this piece of art twice a semester to remind myself not to sweat how big the dent is that I leave in this world. The ground where you fall is the ground you will feed, even if the people you inspire don’t remember your full name.