Plank Piece I–II consists of two large framed black and white photographs in portrait format. Both images show a man pinned against a wall by a long wooden plank. He has long hair and wears dark clothes and heavy workman’s boots. The interior space shown in the photographs is sparse, with a plain carpet and white walls. In the first photograph, shown on the left, strip lighting and what appears to be a trestle table can be seen in the background. In this photograph the man is upside-down, facing the wall and stretching his arms towards the floor so that most of his body is pressed against the wall. The plank meets the man’s body at the back of his knee joints, causing his legs to bend away from the wall at a roughly forty-five degree angle. In the second photograph the man faces away from the wall with his feet hanging down towards the floor. The plank meets the man’s body at his abdomen, causing him to slump over it with his arms dangling down. The man depicted in these images is the artist, Charles Ray. The photographs were produced in an edition of seven with two artist’s proofs.
Ray created the work using his own body, experimenting with the ways in which he could balance himself against the wall using a single plank of wood. The critic Michael Fried has noted that ‘both arrangements, it seems clear, could have been achieved only with the help of at least one other person, who, however, does not appear in the photographs.’ (Fried 2011, p.72.) Indeed Ray deliberately presents the arrangements of body and plank as completed structures, offering no evidence of how the artist arrived in these poses. The works were created while Ray was still a student at the University of Iowa (1971–5) where he studied under Roland Brenner, a former student of the sculptor Anthony Caro. Studying Caro’s work and sculptural techniques (such as welding and bolting metal) was a formative experience for Ray, as the artist recorded in an interview: ‘Caro’s work was like a template; I saw it as almost platonic.’ (Charles Ray and Michael Fried, ‘Early One Morning’, Tate Etc., no.3, Spring 2005, p.51.)
While a student, however, Ray also became interested in the work of minimalist sculptors such as Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Richard Serra. In works such as Shovel Plate Prop 1969 (Tate T01728) Serra had used balance alone to support a heavy sculptural structure. This carefully judged equilibrium is seemingly precarious, pressing the sculpture into a charged and potentially dangerous relationship with the viewer. In response to such works, Ray began to experiment with balance and tension in his own sculpture, dispensing with the bolts and welding he had adopted through studying the work of Caro. In doing so Ray erased distinctions between sculpture and body. As he has said of Plank Piece: ‘My body is a sculptural element pinned to the wall by a wood plank.’ (Quoted in Nittive and Ferguson 1994, p.30.)
Plank Piece was the first work in which Ray used his own body as part of a sculpture. He would continue the practice in works such as In Memory of Sadat 1981 and Shelf 1981 (both reproduced in Nittive and Ferguson 1994, pp.36–7, and discussed in a Tate video, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/charles-ray). In Memory of Sadat shows the artist apparently trapped inside a steel block, one arm and one leg breaking free of a sculptural form in minimalist style. Some critics have read Ray’s gesture in Plank Piece as a similar comment on the dominance of minimalism in the 1960s (see, for example, Nittive and Ferguson 1994, p.17). As the geometric form pins the artist to the wall, physical restriction comes to represent aesthetic restraint. In this reading Plank Piece acts as a bodily intervention in minimalism.
The use of the artist’s body in Plank Piece also reflects the rise of performance art in the 1970s by artists such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden. Yet this work remains predominantly sculptural, since the body is treated as an object rather than as a living and moving entity. The disconcerting nature of the image, as Ray slumps like a rag doll, is also counterpoised by its deadpan humour. The curator Bruce W. Ferguson describes Plank Piece as ‘a Keatonesque butterfly apparatus’ (Nittive and Ferguson 1994, p.11) in reference to the slapstick films of Buster Keaton. Like Keaton, Ray seems to have been the victim of an unlikely accident, with these photographs bearing witness to its aftermath.
Lars Nittive and Bruce W. Ferguson, Charles Ray, exhibition catalogue, Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art, Malmö 1994, pp.10–12, 17, reproduced pp.30–1.
Paul Schimmel, Charles Ray, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1998, p.66, reproduced p.67.
Michael Fried, Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon, New Haven and London 2011, pp.72–4, reproduced p.73.
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