“School Play” (2014), Charles Ray explains, finishes an “accidental trilogy” begun with “The New Beetle” and “Boy with Frog.” “School Play” shows how our boy has grown. No longer naked or innocent, his robed attire and stoic expression recall classical statuary (of which there are excellent examples elsewhere in the Art Institute). This evocation of the classical highlights the semi-scandal or strangeness felt with the earlier statues. The nakedness of the pre-pubescent boy was definitely not “classical.” Classically, the unclothed figure is either the erotic female or the heroic male, Venus or Hercules. Art historian Sir Kenneth Clark famously terms such figures “nudes.” (It would be interesting to think of Ray’s “Aluminum Girl” and “Young Man” as nudes.) “The New Beetle” and “Boy with Frog” were not, in traditional aesthetic terms, “nudes.” But nor were they naked. “Naked,” according to the distinction, connotes sin. When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit — originating sin — they knew for the first time that they were naked and, ashamed, sought to hide their nakedness. Ray’s boys aren’t naked in any knowingly sinful sense. They are shamelessly exposed, indifferent to the conventions of society or God. Maybe even beyond Biblical good and evil? Anyway, creepy, strange.
Questions of nakedness and nudity are not raised directly by the teen of “School Play.” What’s at issue here is violence. As with his car and his frog, our boy is at play. Now it is institutionally sanctioned play, play fostered by formal education. So ludic instincts are channelled by society. The Super-ego gets hold of the Id. The unclothed noble savage becomes civilized. What was ambiguous about playing roughly with a living croaking animal is made explicit. The weird, uncanny phallic frog has been transformed into that quite conventional symbol of aggressive male virility: the sword. Moreover, the teen is specifically armed with a Roman short-sword. This is not the weapon of a barbarian but the practical deadly tool of imperial conquest. The Roman gladius civilized Europe. Thank it for law and sewage, republican government and dramatic theater (and nice aesthetic distinctions concerning the nude).
Ray’s three sculptures do not simply “chart a course through stages of this young boy’s life,” but illustrates a tale of cultural evolution from naked innocent play to the serious play of organized society. Ray says, “‘School Play’ holds a young student’s ability to project an attitude or role while we, the adults, tie the knot in his bedsheet toga in anticipation of applauding the power of his plastic sword.” The sword, if spiritually or symbolically only “plastic,” is quite literally solid steel. So too was the Roman original (also on display elsewhere in the Art Institute), real lethal steel.
The real strangeness of “School Play” resides in the grown boy’s steely expression. He has always been inscrutable, but now he meets our gaze. Is his cold stare a projected “attitude or role” as Ray suggests? If his face has become a mask, then what can be read behind the eyes? I imagine he is starring in a school production of “Julius Caesar.” His ready sword hints he has been cast as Brutus — “Et tu, Brute?”– who murderously betrays trusting Caesar and so (with the best, most idealistic intentions) ignites civil war, ends free republican rule, and ruins Rome. Can all this be discerned in our boy’s deadpan expression? Maybe. I don’t know, but as I back up for a better vantage to admire this elegant sculpture of a young American man, I recall the lyrics of Rush’s classic ballad: “A modern day warrior/ Mean, mean stride/ Today’s Tom Sawyer/ Mean, mean pride.”