Charles Ray Is Pushing Sculpture to Its Limit

“When you get to the more volatile social subject matter, I often think it starts as a provocation or a bad-boy experiment, which is a prod for him to start thinking,” says Jack Bankowsky, a former editor of Artforum who organized a renowned 2014 exhibition of Ray, Koons, and Katharina Fritsch. “That kicking-the-hornet’s-nest aspect is definitely part of his personality, but he sculpts into it, and the complexity that we associate with his work is what comes out the other end.”

In “Huck and Jim,” the flesh of both characters is transmuted into stainless steel. Jim stands upright. Huck is bent at the waist, hand cupped as if reaching into a river. Ostensibly it was their nudity that spooked the Whitney, but the true precarity of the sculpture is Jim’s right hand, hovering gently over Huck’s lower back. In the space between lies a whole tangle of desires and sorrows.

“‘Huck and Jim’ is quite profound as a monument,” says Walker, who is currently organizing an exhibition of decommissioned Confederate monuments for LAXART. “This is like ur-Americana. These are not clothed soldiers, or men embodying virtue, but they somehow embody a national narrative, a national identity. We have this notion about how a monument should function. And then Charles Ray actually gives us something on which to reflect, and it’s like, No, no, no! Put the clothes back on!

“There’s a disjuncture in it, which I got from Smith and Caro,” Ray says of the not-touching nudes. A similar charged separation recurs in “Sarah Williams,” where the positions are reversed: the cross-dressing Huck stands upright, while Jim crouches behind him, an arrangement of Black and white models that feels even more politically fraught.

But look closely at Jim’s right hand. Notice the fish hook sculpted in relief in his half-clenched palm — the hook which, in Twain’s novel, Jim uses to fashion Huck’s dress. Theirs is an emotional, historical, and racial entwinement in which the parts and the whole cannot be sundered. They are embedded in each other, as “Sarah Williams” is embedded in our space.