The Zen of Tchotchkes and the Politics of Mens Suits: Charles LeDray at the Whitney
Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork at the Whitney Museum of American Art
November 18 to February 13th, 2011
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York City, 212 570 3600
Charles LeDray’s survey at the Whitney resonates with intimate vulnerability. His miniaturized, idiosyncratic totems are realized in startling detail, each one speaking to a personal history and hidden life. There is an inherent delicateness to his work, which resists being adorable, despite its diminutive scale. The careful execution of LeDray’s domestic sculptures speaks to his relationship to artistic process, though the politics behind his practice remain willfully opaque. Still, a reoccurring interest in typology over his 25 year career is discernable, perhaps as a means to comment on the positioning of individual identity within an arbitrary social system.
LeDray’s installations of miniaturized garments are arguably his most iconic and evocative pieces. Workworkworkworkwork, the show’s title artwork, introduces the viewer to LeDray’s fascination with the taxonomy inherent to social codification. The installation is composed of 588 miniaturized objects spread across a small platform on the floor near the exhibition’s entrance. The work was originally installed in New York’s Astor Place in 1991, designed to mimic the wares of homeless New York street-vendors. The goods on display are classified in 23 distinct groupings based on an intuitive system of presentability, ostensibly designed to appeal to each vendor’s target consumers. LeDray’s meticulous attention to detail is astounding, almost disconcerting- the thimble sized heels adorned with minuscule pearl buttons, the inch wide gay bondage magazines with pages that turn- these details speak to a level of mania that demands intense examination.
Not all of the LeDray’s works display this same level of obsession, though each piece is imbued with a sense of focused consideration. The literalization of taxonomy through the action of “pinning down” is the subject of his 1922 installation, Dispatch (#1). Here, we see an early fascination with the function of individual specimens within a larger system, whether arbitrary or scientific. The 50 or so miniaturized books are tacked to the gallery wall in a configuration similar to that of a collection of insect specimens for study. The title of the work can be read on multiple levels: is it a reference to the tiny books “dispatched” to the wall? Or, perhaps the name speaks to the inability of the volumes to “dispatch” information as their pages are void of content. It is also possible that the title refers to the books having been “dispatched” (put to death) and left on display for the viewer’s delectation. These volumes function strictly as decorative objects and their typology is classifiable only by their patterned cover. This interrogation of presentation is an early example of LeDray’s pervasive interest in the identity of the individual within a group and the ways in which that identity is signified.
Less broodingly existential than quietly political, LeDray’s works dealing with seriality are a highlight of the show. Always restrained and deliberate, his closed, self-contained system of units, Milk and Honey from 1994-96 subtly evokes a temporal-spatial examination. Each of the 2000 miniscule glazed porcelain vessels speak to different tastes, places and times, from ancient Greece to contemporary Scandinavia. LeDray seems to be taking from Agnes Martin’s meticulously perfect grid pieces here; like Martin, his emphasis on repetitive manual process hints at an influence of Zen Buddhism. Displayed to resemble grandma’s collection of prized tchotchkes, Milk and Honey questions the very nature of the art object through its serial reproduction. By constructing a glass shelving unit, the artist produces different perspectives for looking at the miniaturized works: head on, birds-eye, and peering from below. This meditation of perception serves to draw a relationship between the construction of the art object and the social construction of group identity.
Mens Suits, LeDray’s most recent work in the exhibition, functions on much the same level as his series’ of ceramic vessels. Here, LeDray stages what resembles a used men’s clothing store, stunted to knee-height, with each of the hundreds of individual garment displaying the same level of detail as his earlier works. Referencing and dismantling the motif of industrial production of clothing by implementing painstaking precision through handcrafting, the work highlights the iterative process of artisanal construction. The suggestion of unknown lives haunts the galleries of workworkworkworkwork, and is nowhere more evident than in this final piece. There is something inherently human about the installation and its dark silence seems a testament to something that has been discarded, lost, or deceased. The concentrated size of the objects in Mens Suits serves to heighten their emotional impact as the highly-detailed installation call for the viewer to stoop down and examine the objects from the height of a child. These objects, while at scale perceived as the effects of the homeless, when miniaturized take on the quality of precious relics. The size educes a self-awareness that draws a relationship between the viewers and objects on display. These mementos serve as evidence of the passage of time, and the evocation of personal history tenderly implies that the viewer locate herself within the continuum.