Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Hill Art Foundation, © Charles Ray; photo: Matthew Herrmann (all images courtesy Hill Art Foundation)

The fear (or hope) that contemporary art has lost touch with its older pre-modern traditions is an issue of great interest right now. We may like to hope that putting works from all periods under one roof in encyclopedic museums is an effective way to express the unity of visual art. The many exhibitions that juxtapose contemporary and older artworks are a response to these concerns.

But what if the images made by Cindy Sherman have too little to do with Caravaggio’s, or the sculptures of Eva Hesse have too weak a connection to Bernini’s, to justify such faith in the unity of the European tradition? What if, I am asking, our visual culture has changed so drastically that there is no longer any real ongoing tradition?

With the art market turned more-and-more towards absolutely contemporary works, and the recent modernist past seeming to recede ever more swiftly from living memory, doesn’t this desire to keep in touch with tradition begin to feel increasingly hopeless?

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Hill Art Foundation, © Charles Ray; photo: Matthew Herrmann

The exhibition in Hill Art Foundation’s austere galleries on Tenth Avenue at the north end of Chelsea offers a challenging response to this situation. Setting Charles Ray’s figurative sculptures in dialogue with five Old Master works from the Hill Collection of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, this dramatic confrontation-and-collaboration is sited on two floors of a Kunsthalle.

On the third floor is Three Christs, Sleep Mime and the Last Supper. Here you see two bronzes by Alessandro Algardi, “Corpus Christi” (1646) and “Christ at the Column” (1631); one by Antonio Susini, “Christo Morto” (1590-1615); Ray’s aluminum “Mime” (2014); and his “Mountain lion attacking dog” (2018), in sterling silver, set nearby Barthélemy Prieur’s “Lion devouring a doe” (before 1583).

Then up the stairs is Pagan Paradise, where there are two sculptures, Adriaen de Vries’s “Bacchic Man: Lomazzo Personifying the Accademia della Val di Blenio” (1578-80) and Ray’s “Golden jewelry” (not dated), representing a half-eaten crab apple, a tiny work originally made as a private gift for his wife, along with Ray’s drawing “Godflower” (2011).

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray, Matthew Marks Gallery, and Hill Art Foundation, © Charles Ray; photo: Matthew Herrmann

Mostly these older sculptures are small or medium-sized works and so, sparely installed as they are in these modernist galleries, they have a striking presence. On the top floor, you can look out through the enormous windows to see the High Line, an extension, perhaps, of a pagan paradise.

Ray’s announced goal is to put these older works in dialogue with his art, recognizing that they share concerns with “philosophical conditions of human existence,” along with, of course, specific formal qualities.

Here, then, to interpret his installation we need to consider very seriously the titles of the two floors. Of the Three Christs, the two by Algardi are still alive, but Susini’s is dead on the cross. Still, however close we get to these sculptures, Christ remains distant. As for Ray’s “Mime”: perhaps he mimes sleeping, or perhaps he is really sleeping. In the same way, Christ — another mime! — both dies on the cross as a man and as God’s son is eternally alive.

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray and Matthew Marks Gallery, © Charles Ray; photo: Charles Ray

Finally, presumably the two sculptures of lions attacking other helpless animals present an allegorical version of the Last Supper — could that be correct? Going, upstairs then, to the pagan paradise, we see a Bacchanalian figure, the half-eaten crab apple, and the ink-on-paper “Godflower,” a marvelously radiant image with yellow flower petals — Ray’s vision, I would guess, of sacred reality.

But what kind of relationships are we meant to glean between this higher pagan paradise and the sacred world below? That question remains unanswered.

Now and then, I suspect (but maybe this is my personal limitation), that an honest art writer might feel as if he or she is losing it. I freely confess that some interpretations of Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass” (1915–1923) perplex me; that many tantric Tibetian paintings baffle me; and that I don’t really understand Hilma af Klint’s much-praised theosophical paintings.

And so it’s maybe unsurprising that this exhibition also baffled me. The catalogue, which contains a marvelously short, gnomic essay by Ray from which I quoted, discusses theology, astrophysics, and science fiction. And there is an account of Philip K. Dick, which seems to have something to do with “Mime.” This essay isn’t available for distribution to the public, but you are permitted to read and photograph it. At one point Ray says: “Perhaps I ramble too much.” Yes, that is correct. And yet, his spacey text prompts serious reflection.

“Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection,” installation view; courtesy Charles Ray and Matthew Marks Gallery, © Charles Ray; photo: Charles Ray

Most exhibitions present a readymade critical perspective, supporting a viewpoint you already know, confirming your prior intuitions. But now and then an exhibition throws a curve, using significant works to offer up puzzling, even perplexing connections. And that is what’s happened here. I can see the aesthetic and sacred significance of these Old Master sculptures, and I do admire Ray’s works.

But when he says that his “Mountain lion” is made of silver “because of its cinematic reflectivity,” he loses me. Similarly, when he says that “Golden jewelry” usually sits in a closet safe as “a piece of jewelry in the mind of our marriage,” his explanation is more than a little elliptical: “If there was an Adam and Eve, I believe they had belly buttons.” But maybe this is a private erotic reference?

The goal of such a display, so it has often been said, is to create a whole that is something more than the sum of its mere parts — an ideal that is eternally enchanting. And the aim here, I surmise, is to demonstrate some hidden unity between Old Master sculpture and some contemporary artworks.

Judged by that standard, which sets the bar very high indeed, this baffling exhibition, which I may well have misunderstood entirely, is a great visual achievement even if the hidden unity remains well-hidden. To mis-paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, we would rather interpret wildly than not interpret at all.

Three Christs, Sleeping Mime, and the Last Supper / Pagan Paradise: Charles Ray and the Hill Collection continues at the Hill Art Foundation (239 Tenth Avenue, Third Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 15.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

David Carrier

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins...

12 replies on “Do the Old Masters Still Speak to Us?”

  1. It’s a different world: in the UK at least, many art schools have not taught drawing for 2-3 generations; thus even the tutors no longer know how to draw. Likewise very little art history is taught. You can argue that this isn’t ‘relevant’, in the way rock music draws little from classical music.
    In the past, such things were taught in an elitist way giving the old a status by just being traditional [hence giving this use of ‘elitist’ a completely wrong meaning today]. Interestingly, Roger Daltrey of the Who extolled the inspiration provided by Henry Purcell.
    It is interesting to consider how long it took for the art/technology to build a Roman arch to be lost; I reckon it was about two generations. …And today’s technology in a post-Apocalyptic world?

    1. Oh, the Beatles drew upon melodies they knew, and turned life experience into songs we all now remember. Cat Stevens also drew upon and remade those songs. And now Harry Styles draws upon those songs…..one generation builds upon another. We are still building arches, using that engineering expertise and knowledge daily.

    2. Oh, the Beatles drew upon melodies they knew, and turned life experience into songs we all now remember. Cat Stevens also drew upon and remade those songs. And now Harry Styles draws upon those songs…..one generation builds upon another. We are still building arches, using that engineering expertise and knowledge daily.

  2. The elegance of display reminds the visitor of the way monied second or third homes or lofts are “curated” by designers. Then, the shiny, “ready to be bought” pieces contribute to a slippage of concentration; resulting in a kind of intellectual numbness.

  3. Belly buttons = umbilical cords, therefore, a mother. The implication is of humanity and of being born humans from humans rather than from a divine intervention in the abyss.

  4. It helps me to always remind myself that all of these creations are abstract ways to make us – the viewers – see something we might miss without the artist guide. Getting hit with a curve ball get’s your attention, which is – in this day – harder and harder to attract and hold.

    The more we have the privilege of seeing – the more we have to draw upon to make our own connections

  5. Apparently you have never been to the Kolumba museum in Cologne? That is what they have been showing for years and years from their collection: mixing ancient religious art with modern and contemporary art very cogently and without squeezing the mystery out of it all.

  6. Your thoughtful and interesting response drew a lot of humor for me, as I work so often with old masters. A “cinematic reflectivity” on a silvery surface, to me, reminds of the exchange of silver coins at a critical juncture in the Passion story, and a moving, “in the moment,” contemporary reflection of ourselves, walking past an object that draws our attention to this engagement, this story. We are reflected (ie, cinematic reflectivity) as we are literally walking past, and can see ourselves in that reflection, that glancing moment. The gold bands, and the presence of belly buttons, poses the Chicken and Egg question. Would Adam and Eve have belly buttons? Probably not. They were first, unique, created out of another dimension. Belly buttons are the remnants of an erstwhile physical connection to a womb, a mother’s body. Christ would have one, because of his nurture inside of a woman. Would Adam? Philosophers begin their conference. The erotic component, humorously, is utterly lost on the philosophers here, since the presence of the entrance, the absence of connection, is what is represented in that most tangible and physical evidence. Was there a connection? An umbilical cord? The golden band, the idea of a representation of eternity, promise, most highly valued. Sacrifice and treasure in representation. Christ’s first miracle is at a wedding, when his mother urges him to assist. Silver and Gold. The children’s ditty about friends. Juxtaposing Old Masters, and New Masters, is exciting, and haunting. Thank you for bringing this exhibition to our attention. Big smiles.

Comments are closed.