Charles LeDray’s show workworkworkworkwork at the Whitney opens with a line of miniature hats hanging high on a white wall, immediately in front of you as you exit the elevators. The hats all seem familiar, ranging from flamboyant to boring, from a cheese hat to a plain summer sun hat, from a three-cornered hat to a D.A.R.E. baseball cap. The piece is titled Village People and serves as an excellent introduction to LeDray’s work. Charles LeDray creates miniatures: tiny suits, dresses, porcelain vases, flip-flops and an orrery. His work is delightful, profound, and very compelling but it took me much thought to figure out why I connect these particular adjectives with his work.
My first thought: I find LeDray’s work fascinating for the same reason I find dollhouse furniture fascinating. But this begs two questions. One: If LeDray’s work is equivalent to dollhouse furniture, then how does it merit a show at the Whitney? And two: What is so compelling about dollhouse furniture? To answer the second question first, the final piece in the show seems most illustrative of why small-scale objects are so fascinating. The piece is titled Men’s Suits. It consists of three miniature store settings, complete with ceiling (hung from the real ceiling), tile floor, racks and clothing. The first setting looks like a backroom; it has ladders, bins, boxes, an ironing board and piles of clothes. The second is pristine: a full suit, shirt and tie adorn a dressmaker’s dummy in one corner and a table with neatly laid out ties graces the other. The final scene has a rack of suits, a rack of casual men’s shirts and a table with folded clothing on it. The scenes are at ground level with the ceilings at chest level; so you have to bend down to see the commercial ceiling (the kind where the tiles pop up). The piece both enlarges and diminishes the viewer. It made me feel superior and protective, looking down on this vulnerable world with tiny buttons on tiny suit coats on a scuffed floor. But it also made me feel vulnerable, because this was my world shown as small, trivial and cute. The scale of this work forces us to view familiar scenes from an outsider’s perspective, because we simply don’t fit.
The second fascinating facet of LeDray’s work is the process. It took me a while to come to this conclusion; I associate process-oriented work with Jackson Pollock or Andy Goldsworthy, but LeDray’s painstaking process is one of the strongest elements of his work. I picture too large thumbs and fingers working on miniscule stitches. I can’t imagine figuring out how to delicately mold porcelain into an elegant vessel as big as the thumb that shapes it. LeDray’s clothing shows the process in the stitches, but his porcelain and carved bone baffle the viewer. Wheat, is the first piece made from human bone that the viewer encounters in the exhibit. As the title implies, it is a carving of one life size (one of a few pieces that are not scaled down) shaft of wheat, about the length of a human arm bone with detail so exquisite, it seems that a real shaft of wheat has been petrified into a marble like substance.
The title of the show workworkworkworkwork (also the title of one of the pieces) suggests the importance of process. The title suggests the unending labor of humanity and the laborious task of making the objects. LeDray adds to this sense of labor/work by informing the viewer of the number of objects in a piece. The piece workworkworkworkwork is made up of “588 objects” and Milk and Honey consists of “2000 vessels.” Many of the pieces include this numeric catalog of the small objects that make up the whole piece.
Finally, to answer why it is worth the Whitney’s time, I feel that LeDray makes each piece more than just a diminution of a larger object (more than dollhouse furniture). He is an artist, not an artisan. Each piece is worth attention. Each piece has a significant meaning, narrative, and quirk that makes it worth my time, and worth the Whitney’s time.
The show includes four porcelain pieces, Milk and Honey, Oasis, Untitled and Throwing Shadows. Each piece consists of rows upon rows of tiny porcelain vessels in either a vertical glass case with shelves, or in the case of Throwing Shadows a low horizontal glass case, both similar to museum display cases. Each piece could be seen simply as a manifestation of the artist’s obsessive-compulsive desire to make thousands of tiny objects, but the pieces serve a much greater meaning, especially in conjunction with their titles. Vessels hold food and water, essentials for human existence, so shelves of thousands of vessels imply a lot of food, and a lot of work. The title Milk and Honey partially describes the milky white of all the vessels in this piece, but also is a metaphor for “plenty” used to describe the Promised Land sought by the Israelites of the Old Testament. Oasis, in which the pieces are glazed with bright colors, also implies a similar abundance of food. These pieces also speak about human history and archeology. Most of the artifacts we have from past civilizations are vessels. The “museum cases” imply a display of the history of humanity and its constant search for sustenance. Throwing Shadows particularly recalls this meaning. While the title refers to the act of “throwing” on a potter’s wheel and to the color of the pieces (black), it also refers to the “shadows” that humans leave behind: their vessels.
Other pieces are less weighty and more witty. Lace/Underwear consists of a framed piece of blue fabric with dainty lace embroidered to it, under which is attached a tine pare of men’s briefs. The contrast is humorous, but upon contemplation we realize that the underwear probably took as long to make and is no less intricate than the lace. LeDray’s work brings into perspective the habits of humanity: the styles of clothing, the things we find pretty and the artifacts we choose to remember.