Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork At the Whitney Museum of American Art (Nov. 2010 - Feb. 2011)

workworkworkworkwork is a retrospective exhibition that brings together numerous bodies of work by New York artist Charles LeDray. Master miniaturist, LeDray, has spent the last two decades creating an arsenal of intricately crafted, everyday objects on a very small scale. The title of the show refers to an earlier project. In 1991, after creating a trove of handmade miniature items like clothing, magazines, books and many other household items, LeDray displayed the work on a Manhattan sidewalk. He presented the items randomly, like someone’s possessions in a sidewalk sale. The work on view at the Whitney Museum also includes hand-stitched clothing, paperback books, and daily objects, as well as wheel-thrown tiny ceramics and meticulously carved human bone sculptures such as buttons or furniture. The feature presentation of the exhibition is the artist’s most recent work, Men’s Suits, (2006-2009), an installation of three vignettes of second hand shops.

Upon entry into the exhibition the viewer confronts Village People (2003-2006), little hats of all kinds lining the length of the wall, high above eye level. All kinds of hats in miniature are represented such as the sombrero, cowboy, safari, or Indian headdress. These hats obviously refer to the different roles we play in our lives. Our identities become presented through such roles, developed through our professions, interests, or responsibilities.

Not all, but most of LeDray’s works are experiments with men’s clothing. Lining the gallery walls are miniature outfits, suits, and uniforms, tailored to perfection. But this is not a fashion show. Surprisingly, LeDray never had formal training. He learned to sew from his mother as a child. The work he creates is scaled down, perhaps so the objects are not mistaken for commodities, but are subjects for introspection. The clothing we wear is the way in which we present and protects ourselves in the world. These works serve as substitutes for human presence, almost breathing on their own. Clothes that have been through life do not stay pristine. LeDray’s articles of clothing show such signs of life as tatters, stains, holes, missing buttons, and patched denim. Much of the work is quite literal, while other clothes are wittily or humorously abstracted or altered.

The series Men’s Suits (2006-2009), is a presentation of three small-scale scenes of second-hand clothing shops. One scene presents what looks like the back room of a store with hangers, laundry bags, a ladder and piles of clothes in disarray. The second is a public second hand or vintage shop, fully stocked, with coats, jackets, pants, shirts, gloves, belts and more. The third is a specialty section of a men’s shop, featuring an array of tiny ties, each a different pattern, from paisley to plaid. For this project LeDray spent three years painstakingly hand sewing miniature suits, shirts, and accessories, as well as crafting furniture, clothes hangers, laundry bags and shopping carts. The work is astounding in its realism. The miniature adult clothes are small - too small for any real person to wear - but they are not so small to seem like toys. The fabrics are not cheap and flimsy like doll’s clothes. One can tell that the materials have been carefully chosen, cut from real clothes. Small and wonderful, the work is delightful, but not necessarily cute. Blue jeans and jackets look worn, as if real life had been carried out in them. The vignettes are startlingly believable, causing a suspension of disbelief. One wonders about the lives of people who might have worn these clothes or who might choose to purchase them. This sensation is reminiscent of visiting preserved historical places, such as Versailles, Monticello, or the Anne Frank house, as they manage to transport the viewer to the environment and give a realistic sense of the lives that were lived there. This sensation, however, is momentary. The viewer is not completely enveloped, but towers above the scenes. One quickly returns to reality and the vignettes begin to feel like oversized dioramas.

These installations give an eerie perspective into human experience and our everyday lives. First, the scale (about one–third the scale of actual life) evokes the loneliness of knowing how small our lives are in comparison to the immensity of the universe. Second, one cannot help but feel a sense of futility. These coats, gloves, pants and collared shirts are so perfectly made, but no one will ever actually get the pleasure of wearing them. One thinks of the hours spent toiling away - planning, cutting, folding, ironing, and stitching…stitching…stitching. It brings to mind the hours and hours we all spend at work, or school, or on hobbies or projects - the labors of love and necessity. But when a task is complete, then what? It’s done – on to the next thing. One cannot help but sometimes wonder, what is it all for?

Wonder and disbelief are heightened when viewing Charles LeDray’s intricate ceramics. Presented in 6-7 ft. tall multi-tiered vitrines Throwing Shadows and Milk and Honey show thousands of delicate, porcelain vessels. The shapes of the vessels vary greatly and no form is spared. There are amphoras, urns, decanters, carafes, jugs, bowls, etc. One wonders what these tiny containers hold. Are they vessels for the hopes and dreams of the living or little reliquaries for something lost?

Lastly, there are the sculptures, such as an ivory finger bone with a gold wedding band or stacked furniture, carved from human bone. Again these inspire feelings of loss or futility. These types of objects may be the most morbid in his oeuvre, yet they do not fail to fascinate.

Witty and humorous, though often melancholy, the work is a delight. Though we are mortal, the gift of life is for living. Each person finds meaning in their own way, through how they choose to live and spend their time. One must do something to keep busy and Charles LeDray’s hands have not been idle. He has created an entire tiny universe of objects that manages to give grand insight into real human experience.


  1. I was excited to read this review, as I did not get a chance to see this show during our brief visit to the Whitney. I found it very relevant to learn that the pieces go beyond mere "cuteness," particularly with the artist's use of frayed, worn materials. I like that you acknowledge the various reactions to the work: thoughts of futility, notions of humanity's insignificance in juxtaposition to the scale of the universe, the miniature scale as a way to avert the idea of commodity culture.

    One small thing to note: there are a couple of minor inconsistencies in your text, such as "second hand" (first paragraph) versus "second-hand" (fourth paragraph) and an unnecessary comma after the first mention of Men's Suits.

  2. I also missed this show but your review was such that I regret it. I appreciate your lovingly detailed description of the work, specifically the miniatures and the clothing. To look at work like this and wonder, "what is it all for?" is a serious leap that I'm glad you took. This work may be taken by some to be mundane and simple, but you bring the topic to a new level. And that is what art is supposed to do. At best, after viewing, it demands that we search our own lives for meaning and feeling.