10/02/15

INSPIRE: Charles Ray, Sculpture 1997-2014

BY ALYSHA BALOG, DESIGNER

I first saw Charles Ray's monumental sculpture Boy with Frog at the Punta della Dogana overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice in 2009, when I was a design student. The sculpture is of a 12-year-old boy holding a frog at arm's length, but at eight feet in height, it towered over the scores of tourists who came to see it. Fabricated out of flawless white-painted stainless steel, glowing in the Italian sunshine in a 500-year-old plaza, the effect was mesmerizing: a huge, impossibly perfect symbol of youth and beauty in the midst of that ancient, crumbling, gorgeous city—a sight I'll never forget.

After a lot of unpleasant legal wrangling, Boy with Frog was removed from its home in Venice in 2013. Fortunately for me, the sculpture found its way to the Art Institute of Chicago as part of a Charles Ray retrospective. Speaking as a designer, one of the advantages of living in this city is having access to so many wonderful museums, the Art Institute chief among them. Years after the first time I saw it, I made plans to see Boy with Frog again with great anticipation.

The second viewing was not what I expected…after all, Ray had specifically designed the piece for the site in Venice. Seeing Boy with Frog “trapped" in a gallery was jarring for me, even disappointing. The setting seemed wrong, or so I initially thought! However, the exhibit also showed two more of Ray's pieces, The New Beetle (2006) and School Play (2014), which, along with Boy with Frog, complete what he calls an “accidental trilogy" of sculptures of the same boy at different ages: The New Beetle portrays the boy at age 4, in white-painted stainless steel, playing with a toy car; School Play portrays the boy in polished stainless steel as an adolescent, standing wrapped in a toga and holding a sword. The three sculptures taken together provoked new impressions I never would have gotten from the single statue in Venice—perhaps a meditation on boyhood, or the passage of time, or the inevitable responsibilities of growing older— all because I could see the “trilogy" in its entirety. It was a fascinating experience that showed me that an individual piece of art may be timeless or unchanging in itself, but experiencing art is guided by context. The new space, the gallery setting, the other sculptures, all provided new contexts that changed my relationship to Boy with Frog, giving me a far richer experience than seeing it just once in Venice could have.

This new understanding gave me insight into my working life as a designer too. Creating a beautiful logo or package is only a first (but very important) step in the life of a brand. Brands aren't static, unchanging, monolithic; they're experiential, swirling through constantly changing environments: print advertising, television, online, retail stores, mobile devices, at home or at work…each one a way for consumers to “get to know" a brand, like getting to know a person, with all the pitfalls and opportunities that go along with any relationship. Smart companies have always understood this. Along with making an excellent product and having excellent design, cultivating rock-solid relationships with their audiences is the surest way for brands to succeed. Designers today understand that designing a brand doesn't just mean defining a look—it really means defining, though design, a broad range of rich consumer experiences influenced by multiple contexts. I was inspired by Mr. Ray to keep this in mind as I grow in my art, and I encourage anybody who wants to build solid, satisfying, creative relationships with their clients or their customers to do likewise!