Back in his studio, where the floor tiles are crumbling in places, works sit in various stages of development. On one table is a brown leather wallet, or at least what looks like one. Ray picks it up and demonstrates that it’s actually a clay prototype of a sculpture, which he may eventually make in steel. “I wanted to make a sculpture that you could carry in your pocket,” he says with all sincerity. Nearby stands a headless, armless man’s body, a work in progress made with foam and covered with clay. The model “was a young artist, a friend of mine, who doesn’t go to the gym—and I like that specificness of the body,” Ray says. “I’m kind of still struggling. I’m trying to keep this from ending up like muscle, but to get more of that love handle, belly thing.”
Ray is happy to discuss the nuts and bolts of his art—”happy” being a relative term. A melancholy emanates from Ray, whose voice is a mumbling monotone and whose bespectacled face is often expressionless. At 54, he admits to being something of a loner, and he seems like a man who does not want to give anything away.
His oeuvre is small but profoundly powerful. As a young man studying art at the University of Iowa in the Seventies, he began to experiment with a kind of performance sculpture, using his own body, a practice he continued into the Eighties. In Plank Piece (1973), for instance, his torso dangled over a wood plank that was jammed from the floor to his waist, lodging him about three feet up against a wall. (It was widely seen as a parody of Richard Serra’s “Prop” pieces, but Ray says that while Serra was certainly an influence, there was no parody, or even humor, intended.) Though he gradually moved away from performance, he repeatedly returned to his own image, making all manner of self-portraiture—from photographs like All My Clothes (1973), consisting of 16 pictures of himself wearing his entire, heavily plaid wardrobe, and Yes (1990), a photo of himself while on LSD, to Self-Portrait (1990), a department-store mannequin bearing Ray’s likeness and dressed in his favorite, inexpensive sailing outfit. Perhaps most famously and most outrageously, Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley... (1992) is a sculpture of eight lifelike Rays engaged in mutual masturbation.
Ray, however, seems to be in deep denial about why the piece might spark curiosity about what’s going on inside his head. “I used my genitalia—that’s not important,” he says. “People make a big deal out of that. But you know, should I ask my assistant if I can use his?” The piece, he insists, was born of a desire to fashion a compelling multifigure sculpture, and nothing of his true self was revealed. But if there is no connection to his own identity, why did he give each figure his face, and why on earth did he name the thing after himself? Now he’s stumped. “No, that’s true, you’re right. It was my face and my name.” He pauses. “Is that interesting?” Later he says that my questions themselves reveal “faults of the piece.”