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Art review: Charles Ray 'Boy With Frog' at the Getty Museum

August 2, 2011 |  1:00 pm

Charles Ray Boy With a Frog This post has been corrected. See note at bottom.

Until recently, Charles Ray's 2009 sculpture "Boy With Frog" stood at the tip of Dorsoduro, the island facing St. Mark's Cathedral on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. Larger than life, not unlike the watery city itself, the 8-foot-tall boy holds a frog aloft, dangling by one leg. A classically inspired nude, painted the white of Carrara marble, he contemplates his catch like some gender-bending Venus arising from the sea.

Or, it might be added, like a modern frog prince pondering his condition and his fate.

That's the suggestion that slips into the foreground in the sculpture's new home on the bone-dry steps in front of the J. Paul Getty Museum. (On loan, the statue remains on view  through January.) The fiberglass model for a painted steel version to be permanently installed in Venice in front of collector François Pinault's lavish vanity museum, "Boy" is charming, odd and enigmatic. It's a shape-shifter, a beguiling trait common to many of the best Ray sculptures.

Shape-shifting is a familiar theme in folklore and popular mythology -- a magical transformation, usually between human and animal and implying deep inner turmoil. It's as frequent in fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm as in fan-boy epics from 3-D Hollywood. Ray's sculpture is hardly explicit, which is one reason it's so good. Instead, the exquisitely crafted fusion of form and subject is equivocal enough to foster contemplative puzzlement.

At once Greco-Roman and hyper-real, nodding toward an ancient artistic past while exploiting modern technology, the figure casually invokes time. An adolescent, the boy is neither child nor man. (The model was the 12-year-old son of a family friend.) He's betwixt and between, navigating an awkward age with endearing curiosity as he scrutinizes an ugly, semi-terrestrial amphibian.

Eight feet tall, a David who's the size (if not the temperament) of a Goliath, he embodies the relative magnitude of a clumsy period of existence -- one that's never fully outgrown. Fluid psychological undercurrents belie the solid stance adopted by this seemingly serene figure.

A decade ago the Getty declined a permanent Ray commission and, disappointingly, this temporary sculpture is behind railings, which don't allow viewers to venture out onto the staircase where he stands. Still, any excuse is always a good excuse to see Ray's marvelous work.

J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300. Through January. Closed Mondays. www.getty.edu

[Updated Aug. 8, 4:53 p.m. The sculpture is called "Boy With Frog." An earlier version of this review had the wrong title.]

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— Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photo: Charles Ray's "Boy With Frog," 2009, painted fiberglass. Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum

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