Charles Ray’s “Boy with Frog” (2009) originally stood canal-side in Venice on a spot previously occupied by an old lamp-post where lovers came to kiss for good luck. When Ray heard the story behind the site, he altered the dimensions of his sculpture to match the size of the lamp, the better to welcome lovers back. Who, however, would kiss beneath a big American bullfrog dangled by an over-sized and naked boy? The boy from “The New Beetle” (2006) has grown, and like his younger self, he is disconcertingly oblivious to his exposed genitals. In Venice, moreover, Ray doubles the confrontation by giving us, held just above the kid’s crotch, a frog as phallic symbol: a phallic frog! Ray typically denies such associations: “The frog itself has no symbolism. If you kiss it, a prince will not appear. Touch its head and good luck will not befall you.” His denial seems to be taunting Venice’s romantics.
More discomfiting than the boy’s self-exposure and its obvious symbolic correspondence with a croaking amphibian is the ambiguity of the expression on his face. He does not smile. He does not scowl. His blank expression, most saliently in the eyes, but also in the perfectly modeled deadpan face, gives us no sense of what might happen next. He seems to be rough handling the poor beast, clutching it by a single leg. Is our boy playing with this frog the way he once played with his new beetle? Doesn’t he realize that living creatures are not toys to be played with? Is Ray saying that “boys will be boys” as they were in Lord of the Flies, casually cruel? I recall Glouchester’s lament in “King Lear”: “As [frogs] to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.They kill us for their sport.”
In its size, subject, color and magnificence, “Boy with Frog” recalls Michelangelo’s “David”; admittedly, the giant-killer has been reduced to a frog-catcher, but Ray’s mode is not the heroic, but a kind of epic mockery. Ray observes that others have seen the boy as representing the curiosity that leads to scientific discovery, while some have seen “the boy coming to terms with otherness.” Interestingly, after noting that the locals voted to remove his statue in favor of bringing back their original lamppost, Ray promises “Like MacArthur said in 1942, on a beach halfway across the world, “I shall return” — I mean this spiritually if not literally.” I am not sure what Ray might mean precisely. The reference is puzzling, but perhaps in the spirit of “Boy with Frog,” it possesses a subtle menace. General MacArthur did return, of course, three years later, cataclysmically, at Hiroshima with “Little Boy.”