Charles Ray's body of work has earned him a reputation as an innovative and provocative artist who challenges the accepted boundaries of what constitutes art. Through his installations, and his sculptures in particular, he plays with perceptions of scale and space and produces thought provoking pieces which are at the same time both personal and public and aesthetic and autobiographical.
Hand Holding Egg is an intimate evocation of childhood but despite its outward beauty, Ray subverts rather than celebrates our understanding of infancy with his depiction of a child's plump hand grasping an egg. The perfection of the flawless porcelain surface is disrupted by the hole in the top of the egg together with its surrounding cracks. Peering in through the top of the egg, it becomes apparent that the egg is completely hollow, turning what at first glance is already fragile object into an even more fragile and vulnerable work.
Hand Holding Egg is rich with symbolism as here the egg-for hundreds of years an allegory of fecundity and new life-becomes an object of fragility and emptiness. An outstretched arm on the other hand, has many powerful connotations as from Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to Rodin's The Cathedral, depicting the human hand has been one way for artists to examine their own relationship with the world they inhabit. For nearly all of us, the hands are the way we physically connect to the world; they are central to how we eat, how we great people and how we function on a day-to-day level and for most artists they are fundamental to how their ideas become reality. Jean-Paul Sartre, writing the introduction for a 1948 exhibition of Alberto Giacometti's work featuring La Main (his haunting evocation of an outstretched human hand) wrote, "I can consider separately from the tree itself, this wavering branch, but I cannot think of an arm rising, a fist closing, apart from a human agent. A man raises his arm, a man clenches his fist: man is the indissoluble unity and the absolute source of his movement." (J. Sartre, The Search for the Absolute, exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1948, p. 3). The hand is our prime intermediary between the mind and the world, it allows thought to act upon and transform the world. The outstretched hand expresses the human need to grasp, to reach out towards the world and to aspire within it; the hand enables us to realize our potential in accomplishing all things. In the face of another, the hand may embrace in love or ward off in fear, extend itself in joy or lamentation. No part of the human body, except maybe for the head itself, is a more potent symbol for the totality of the human endeavor.
This sense of playing with established norms and perceived reality lies at the very heart of Ray's work and is what makes works such as Hand Holding Egg so representative of his oeuvre as a whole. "Over the years Ray has often spoken of an art that can jerk one's head around," writes curator Paul Schimmel, "of creating objects and creating situations that are not what they appear to be and that force us to re-examine the validity of truths from a perceptual experience. Ray takes the bedrock off reality, whether something as abstract as a cube or as concrete as a human figure, and then twists, tweaks, and jerks it until it tugs at the reality of what one thinks one knows" (P.Schimmel, 'Beside One's Self', Charles Ray, exh. cat, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1988, p. 59).