Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's That Boy Doing Here?

Art Appreciation (click for enlargement)
Considering Charles Ray's "Boy with a Frog" was commissioned especially for the site it now occupies at the Punta della Dogana the thing I find most striking about it is how very little it has to do with its place.

For one thing, in a city long committed to its own glorification, to awe-inspiring displays of wealth and power, it is a deflating piece of work. This is in no way a bad thing. In fact it may be just what is needed: a distinctly contemporary gesture in a city that trades on its past.

Except that the great old Italian figural tradition of public monumental sculpture to which it alludes is of very little importance here in Venice. Sure, there are Sansovino's figures of Neptune and Mars in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale, but these big guys are far from the first, or second, or even seventh thing most people think of when they think of Venice.

Florence or Rome would provide the appropriate sculptural context in which the subversive intent of Ray's work would be foregrounded. Ray has added one more monumental figure for any tourist following the standard itinerary through Italy to photograph: Trevi Fountain (check), Michelangelo's David (check), and Venice's giant Boy (check). But of course there is nothing heroic about this last work, about the boy's accomplishments. He has the youth of David, and some of his stature, but in contrast to the public civic aim of David's act (and Michelangelo's work), Ray's physically immature boy is wholly absorbed in a conquest of only small, private and rather cruel interest.

In Ray's presentation there is perhaps a healthy skepticism about the public uses and abuses of heroism--but what it's doing in Venice I couldn't really say. As far as the subversion of heroism and certain inflated notions of masculinity goes, I'd suggest that Donatello's "David" in Florence was actually more immediately to the point. True, I suppose Ray's "Boy" in some sense conjures the Venetian sculptor Canova's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa" but that work, in addition to itself being a late and rather unconvincing example of heroic marble sculpture (heroism wasn't exactly Canova's thing), is also nowhere near Venice. I've seen it in NY's Metropolitan Museum--which I think might actually be a better venue for Ray's work as well.

For aside from the fact that while one can still see crabs, for example, in the waters of Venice--and any number of other salt-water creatures--that frog, and the boy who holds it, strikes me as thoroughly American born and bred. One can claim that Ray's large whiter-than-marble-because-it-ain't-marble work is the final step in the moribund tradition of Italian monumental public sculpture (dead boy walking), evoking David. But it's Huck Finn I've always seen when I look at the work and, gratifyingly enough, it was Huck Finn, according to an interview I've just found online with Ray, that the artist says he was actually thinking of as he created this figure.

He may also have had in mind the (rather cloying) work of American sculptor Edward Henry Berge (1876-1924) who crafted his own versions of a boy with a frog for public spaces in the early 20th Century.
Edward Berge's "Boy with Frog" in Baltimore
In any case, none of this is to say that I think it's a bad work. On the contrary, I think it suggests very interesting ideas about humanity's relationship to nature, contemporary notions of the self, of power, heroism, narcissism... Well, I have to stop myself from rambling on about it. It intrigues me to think of it located in New Orleans. Or, more pointedly, on the Mall in Washington DC.

But I don't know exactly what it's doing in Venice. Here it succeeds simply as big budget spectacle, and in the world of contemporary art I suppose that's considered enough.

You can see more on this sculpture here:

No comments:

Post a Comment