The Lovable Abject
By Charles LeDray
Whitney Museum of American Art,
November 18, 2010–February 13, 2011
Fabric, thread, embroidery floss, cotton and synthetic batting, nylon cord, leather, leatherette, vinyl, carpet, wood, wood stain, shellac, polyurethane, paint, glue, nails, metal, metal patina, metal piping, staples, screws, paper, contact paper, cardboard, Eucaboard, Plasticine clay, epoxy resin, epoxy dye, Plexiglass, “Crackle Ice”, styrene plastic, compact fluorescent light bulbs, light fixtures, electrical cord, marbled paper, graphite, tar, velvet, pearl buttons, sawdust, sugar, porcelain, pumice, magic marker, masking tape, ivory, gold, human bone, and dust.
This list may read like a page from a recipe book belonging to Macbeth’s Three Witches, but it’s actually a list of materials Charles LeDray used to make the thousands of miniature sculptures in workworkworkworkwork, his solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. LeDray’s small-scale simulacra (primarily of clothing, but also of pottery, books, furniture and other objects from the domestic sphere) are astonishingly detailed, endlessly varied, and oddly specific. His work is at once sordid and adorable, infinite and infinitesimal. The exhibition’s title is apt: LeDray’s art is plainly a labor of love, and moreover, a love of labor.
In sculpture, size does matter, and bigger has been better for a long time. The gigantic gesture has preoccupied contemporary sculpture since the 1970’s, with major figures like Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, Christo and Richard Serra at the forefront of the movement. Scaling up ordinary objects became popular around the same time, with Claes Oldenburg and Robert Therrien’s monumental versions of household miscellany such as safety pins, erasers, clothespins, spoons, and folding chairs. This trend continues to be explored today by highly successful artists like Charles Ray, known for his larger-than-life sculptures of “everyday” people, and Jeff Koons, whose giant balloon animals (and record sales figures) have made him a household name.
These artists have something in common beside their predilection for the Brobdingnagian: clean fingernails. They don’t make things, at least not with their hands. The advent of conceptual art, for some practitioners, effectively freed the artist from the labor, the mind from the body. In this model, the actual labor is at best a distraction and at worst a contaminant of the pure idea.
Not so for Charles LeDray, whose work and practice unequivocally resist the negation of the hand. In her eloquent treatise On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, poet and scholar Susan Stewart writes: “We cannot separate the function of the miniature from a nostalgia for preindustrial labor, a nostalgia for craft.” It might appear that the items LeDray most frequently depicts—the cheap, mass-produced t-shirts, button-down shirts, jackets, ties—are unlikely choices for someone investigating nostalgia for the pre-industrial. However, as Stewart points out with regard to scale models of factory-produced items: “These toys are nostalgic in a fundamental sense, for they completely transform the mode of production of the original as they miniaturize it: they produce a representation of a product of alienated labor, a reproduction which itself is constructed by artisanal labor.” It is at this unsettling intersection, wherein the “produced” is reinvented by the “made,” that we locate the importance of LeDray’s work. He sets his own artisanal labor in opposition to both the industrialized system that creates the items he replicates and to the art that relies on that same system.
Lest this interpretation seem extreme, it should be noted that the notion of “craft” has been so thoroughly railroaded by a narrow idea of conceptualism (and is due for another blow from Koons’ Train, a 70-ft locomotive dangling from an 161-ft crane being constructed for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) that long-established institutions like California College of the Arts, which was called California College of Arts and Crafts until 2003, and New York’s Museum of Art and Design, which until 2002 was the American Craft Museum, actually took the drastic step of changing their names to dissociate themselves from the word “craft.” Certainly, “craft” fell from grace and fell hard. According to Merriam-Webster, “Craft” is defined as “an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.” One can’t help but wonder if institutions that aspire to associate themselves with “high art” wish to avoid the “blue-collar” connotations of words like ‘occupation,’ ‘trade,’ and ‘manual.’
It’s not an accident that LeDray’s subjects for his clothing miniatures are emphatically specific about class. Unlike traditional scale models or dollhouse miniatures, these are not archetypal objects or generalized stand-ins for real-world referents. LeDray focuses on the personalized uniforms of blue-collar workers, in secondhand clothes, in military uniforms, in patched and altered clothing—garments with functions and histories. These are not doll’s clothes or salesmen’s models of the season’s fashions, nor are they “period pieces” in the usual sense. The garments are rooted in a recent past, a past almost—but not quite—ready to be collected. Though many of the styles LeDray depicts have already been recycled into fashion’s omnivorous “retro” engine and repackaged for consumption, his garments somehow avoid modishness. Their aura of ordinariness thwarts desire. Through labor, LeDray posits our own overlooked objects as subjects for art and makes the abject lovable.
Indeed, the most successful work in the show takes the most mundane as its subject. Men’s Suits, the exhibition’s most ambitious installation, comprises three fluorescent-lit tableaux in a darkened room. Each depicts a scene from a thrift store; two are sales-floor displays, pitiful in their artlessness, and the last is the room where donations are sorted. In the latter, clothes lie in heaps; some are bagged, some hung on wheeled carts, others draped on ladders and fixtures. Every detail—every tear, stain, and broken button, every scuff on the linoleum floor, every drooping wire hanger—is tenderly replicated at a fraction of its size. Even the dust that coats the low ceiling fixtures has been arranged by the artist. (When Men’s Suits was installed in London, LeDray imported New York dust for the ceilings lest some property of English dust undermine the particular Americanness of the scene). The overall effect is simultaneously precious and drab. From the doorway, the three miniature tableaux glow, lit with the drama of gems on black velvet. Upon close inspection, their scars and imperfections are revealed in all their exquisite detail. The dissonance between the tableaux’ utter banality and the attention paid to their representation is pleasurable and provocative.
The clothes have the ghostly pathos of shed skins and vacant shells. LeDray establishes histories for his objects, evidence of lives lived. Used-ness implicates the body; we are forced to imagine the actual, organic bodies that could have filled these garments. The bodies we imagine cannot be dollhouse figurines, as the dollhouse represents a prototype of a perfect life, unblemished by living. Dollhouses are stages for impossible lives where no one ever trips or spills coffee. LeDray provides an antidote to this anodyne fantasy: he depicts with lavish verisimilitude the stains and tears that are the evidence of real life’s miniature misadventures. These touches reinforce the hyperreality of the tableaux, and in turn implicate our own bodies. Viewers are transformed into lumbering Gullivers. We contort ourselves, stooping and crouching as we try to get a better view. We start to feel that we are the ones who are out of scale.
Our bodies, after all, are our measuring sticks—when confronted with the miniature or the gigantic, we suddenly feel our own size, we inhabit our bodies more acutely, we become self-aware. The power of scale is to compel viewers to reevaluate their own body’s relationship to its surroundings. LeDray’s Men’s Suits installation incorporates strategies from performance art. Instead of peering at the tableaux from a fixed viewing point as we would dioramas at a natural history museum, we experience them in space and time. Unlike dioramas, they are freestanding, inviting us to circumnavigate them. Without glass or any other barrier to separate us, we are physically implicated in ways dioramas can only approximate. The absence in this installation of the accoutrements of display—glass, ropes, pedestals—preserves the illusions of the work and permits the scale shift to thoroughly envelop the viewer. It is contemporary trompe l’oeil at its most effective.
Most of the other works in the exhibition incorporate the appurtenances of museum display with varying success. The piece that suffers most in translation into the white-cube space is the titular installation, 1991’s workworkworkworkwork, LeDray’s first major foray into the terrain that would fuel his artistic production for the next twenty years. This collection of over six hundred tiny objects—diminutive replicas of castoff clothing, shoes, magazines, knickknacks, and other assorted junk—was originally “installed” on a Astor Place sidewalk, mimicking the impromptu sidewalk displays of itinerant street vendors that flooded New York City during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, a troubled period defined by homelessness and unemployment. LeDray, like the vendors, temporarily colonized a small swath of sidewalk. Laying out wares can be understood as laying claim, however briefly, to public space. Much of the power of the work, as documentary photographs of the original installation can attest, derives from the act of transforming the sidewalk into a pedestal and the public square into a gallery. The site-specific nature of the work enabled a confluence of high and low and a collapsing of boundaries that drew attention to economic disparities. In the current installation at the Whitney, the piece is arranged on a low white pedestal that fails to suggest the transgressive qualities of the original mode of display.
Photographs of the original installation of workworkworkworkwork indicate that many of the concerns that LeDray continues to explore in his later work originated here: the mesmerizing power of repetition and variation of form, the eerie juxtaposition of the sordid and the sweet, and the use of miniatures as a vehicle to reveal and revel in labor, to reify the “thingness” of the object, and to imply the absent body. But if the body is only suggested in his miniature clothing sculptures, it is confronted directly in a group of exquisite carvings scattered throughout the exhibition that reveal LeDray’s taste for the macabre in a surprising way. These primarily depict furniture and household items (a door, a writing desk, a pile of chairs, a group of buttons) all executed in stunning detail, but the most virtuosic of the carvings is also one of the show’s few studies of a subject from the realm of the natural rather than the man-made. It is a single stalk of wheat rendered with truly astonishing skill. Each kernel and husk is reproduced with heartbreaking fineness; the stem and spikes are as delicate as hair.
This work taps into the history of the miniature as a wonder-provoking demonstration of human skill and ingenuity—it could sit comfortably on the shelf of a Seventeenth Century Wunderkammer, perhaps next to a specimen of Scythian Lamb, the woolly fern believed at the time to be a plant/animal hybrid creature. The comparison to curiosity cabinet oddities is furthered by the material LeDray is working with: his carvings are made of a warm-white substance that looks like ivory but is identified on the labels as “human bone.” (The question of how this peculiar material was sourced goes unanswered.) If the material was selected for the added frisson of apprehension or morbid curiosity that it elicits, it certainly worked. I saw a visitor to the exhibition approach the case, closely inspect the work, and then, upon reading the label, literally yelp and leap backwards.
Along with the carvings and fabric pieces, there is one other major body of work in the show. LeDray’s groups of thousands of miniature earthenware vessels, mesmerizing and beautiful in their seemingly endless variations on a theme, reinforce the spectacle of labor. They also reiterate a necessary characteristic of miniatures, which is to replace use value with display value. That is to say, miniaturization divorces an object from its function. In addition, by diminishing its scale, it draws attention to the “thingness” of the object itself, to its form over its content. Claude Levi-Strauss addresses this in the classic text of structural anthropology, The Savage Mind: “In the case of miniatures, in contrast to what happens when we try to understand an object or living creature of real dimensions, knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts.” He continues: “But miniatures have a further feature. They are ‘man made’ and what is more, made by hand. They are therefore not just projections or passive homologues of the object: they constitute a real experiment with it.” In LeDray’s work, this experimentation is a kind of translation that takes place when something is created manually rather than mechanically. The body is the conduit for this translation. LeDray’s work in general, and his ceramic vessels in particular, can be read as a manifesto for the hand—the hand as inventor, the hand as vehicle for accidents happy and unhappy, and the hand as essential extension of the mind.
Yali Lewis is an artist living and working in New York.