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Charles Ray. Family Romance. 1993

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Charles Ray (American, born 1953)

Family Romance

Painted fiberglass and synthetic hair
53" x 7' 1" x 11" (134.6 x 215.9 x 27.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Charles Ray

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 345

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.

Audio Program excerpt

Take Two. Worlds and Views: Contemporary Art from the Collection

, September 14, 2005–March 21, 2006

Artist, Charles Ray: This sculpture, called Family Romance was made in 1993, and that whole thing about 'family values' was, you know, all the talk. Family values, family values. And I had helped raise a stepson. And I knew that this kind of equation of family values, it always spoke of the values as the parents' values and the power from the parent’s point of view. And raising a stepson I knew how much power children have over their parents, and it seemed that the equation was much more in two directions than the politicians of the time wanted to talk about.

So I got this idea to make a family, and you know, level the family somehow. So I shrunk the parents down and raised the children up so that they all met at about four feet two-and-a-half inches. It was difficult to get that proportion. These sort of shifting scales are joined and resolved at the juncture of the hands. And you know, how do you get these different scales to come together at those points?

I wanted the father to be about like me at the time: in his mid- to late 30s, gone a little bit to pot; the Mom to be a little bit over the hill after having two kids. The boy is closer to the mean average of the proper height. The only figure that isn't anatomically correct is the girl because she's supposed to be about two, and if you ever look closely at a two-year old their heads are huge. So when the piece was made correctly, it looked like three people and an alien. This was still while it was in clay. So we took about 60 pounds of clay off the girl's head. So, she's the only one that in a sense isn't anatomically correct. But anyway, I think you can find the meaning of this sculpture where the hands come together.

Audio Program excerpt

MoMA2000: Open Ends (1960-2000)

, September 28, 2000–March 4, 2001

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.

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