Charles Ray. (American, born 1953). Family Romance. 1993. Painted fiberglass and synthetic hair, 53″ x 7′ 1″ x 11″ (134.6 x 215.9 x 27.9 cm). Gift of The Norton Family Foundation. © 2008 Charles Ray
Two parents, two young children: “It’s a nuclear family,” as Ray says, the model of American normalcy. Yet a simple action has put everything wrong: Ray has made all of them the same height. They are also naked, and unlike the store-window mannequins they resemble, they are anatomically complete. This and the work’s title, the Freudian phrase for the suppressed erotic currents within the family unit, introduce an explicit sexuality as disturbing in this context as the protagonists’ literally equal stature.
Early works of Ray’s submitted the forms and ideas of Minimalism to the same kind of perceptual double-take that Family Romance works on the social life of middle-class Anglo-Saxon America. He has worked in photography and installation as well as sculpture, and his art has no predictable style or medium; but it often involves the surprise of the object that seems familiar yet is not. Like other works of Ray’s involving mannequins, Family Romance suggests forces of anonymity and standardization in American culture. Its manipulations of scale also imply a disruption of society’s balance of power: not only have the children grown, but the adults have shrunk.
Kirk Varnedoe: This is a sculpture by the Los Angeles artist Charles Ray called Family Romance from 1993. It’s one of the most hilarious works in the show and at the same time it’s something that really gets under your skin. Somehow the blank-faced parents have been diminished. And these children-like inhabitants of some strange village of the damned have a blank-faced gigantism as they swell up to the scale of their parents that levels everything together, that seems to reduce the level of adulthood down to childhood and make childhood preternaturally too large. One can never adjust properly the sense of one’s own body and one’s own size in relation to this four-part sculpture. The whole idea of family unity brought by the child’s growing up too fast and by the diminishment of the adult make this a disturbing allegory of interchange between the two states of life.
Ray’s title Family Romance refers to Freudian concepts of the relationship between children and their parents. And one has the same kind of uneasy sense here of the displacement of adulthood by emerging powers of childhood. The fact that the sculpture is entirely anatomically correct in all of the specifics makes it even more disturbing.
Ray made this sculpture in 1993, and in some sense it’s very much a part of our time. In an age when we’re worried about children who carry guns to school, in an age when advertising tends to infantilize adults, in an age when the border line that divided the sanctity and separateness of childhood is being blurred, and the merger between adult life and childhood is being smeared more together, this seems very much a sculpture for our times.