Charles LeDray

at the Arts Club, through December 21

Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka once explained his artistic motivation: deeply unhappy with the world, he sought a form of paradise in his precise, jewel-like, labor-intensive short films. Charles LeDray’s 28 extraordinary works at the Arts Club, many of them miniature reproductions of everyday objects, including clothes, suggest that he too looks for a refuge in art. Some pieces call up psychological associations–not all unhappy, but frequently hinting at loss of identity and other distressing states–while others, often more recent, have an almost Zen-like purity.

LeDray, born in Seattle in 1960, was taught to sew at four by his mother. Working as a guard at the Seattle Art Museum while he was in his 20s also proved formative. As he told Claudia Gould (who organized this traveling exhibition for the Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia) in an interview, he saw not only contemporary art but “Neolithic Chinese jades, rhinoceros-horn libation cups, twelfth-century Japanese flung-ink paintings, Indian Mughal ivory powder horns, African masks, southeast Asian jewelry and textiles, and on and on. Many nights, I would leave the museum with a burning desire to make something–anything–inspired by spending the day with great works of art.”

That eclecticism is revealed in one of the show’s earliest pieces, Workworkworkworkwork (1991), consisting of 588 objects arrayed on the floor against one wall. Most are small items of clothing and even smaller replicas of books and magazines–everything is proportioned to a miniature people. Some publications have real titles, like Time; there are also items of gay porn and some odd titles LeDray invented (“Sleaziest,” “News…and Sex”). Though visitors aren’t intended to turn the pages, each magazine in fact has insides (made of cut-up magazines). LeDray originally displayed the piece on a Manhattan sidewalk, hoping to re-create “the display of used goods for sale by homeless people.” Russell Ferguson in the show’s excellent catalog quotes critic Ralph Rugoff on LeDray: “The tiny scale can actually concentrate an object’s presence, almost in the manner of a fetish.” Ferguson himself suggests that the objects’ scale “contributes to their separation from their full-size context in everyday life,” making us feel that, “like Gulliver, we have traveled to a remote part of the world, somewhere quite familiar yet disturbingly strange.”

However much LeDray’s miniatures might summon up psychological explanations, they also suggest a world apart, a parallel universe perfectible in a way that ours is not. They evoke the tangles of human emotion but are free of physical defects–and even of the human figure. In the creepy Untitled/Mattress (1993), the titular object is lying on the floor stained with various shades of brown, evoking urine, blood, semen–and suggesting the dirty beds of fleabag hotels. But since the mattress is a mere 15 inches long, the image is less creepy than, say, the full-size mattress of Robert Rauschenberg’s famous combine Bed.

Identity is an issue in a number of the clothing miniatures. Bust (1995) is a shirt, jacket, and tie on a hanger–the ensemble cut off just below the tie knot. The almost frightening Torn Suit (1998) is shredded at about chest level, suggesting some process potentially deadly to the person wearing the suit. Yet LeDray told Gould in their interview that the piece is “a simple exercise in adding and subtracting materials,” noting that he used scissors and sandpaper to shred the fabric.

LeDray tends to be laconic when it comes to interpreting his work–he even turned the Gould interview around, questioning her. But the exhibition, taken as a whole, tells a coherent story. While Torn Suit seems partly a self-assault, the earlier Charles (1995) suggests that LeDray’s destructive impulses are directed primarily toward conventional masculinity, whether embodied in a jacket and tie or blue-collar work clothes. The main element in Charles is a dark blue windbreaker with the name “Charles” stitched on the breast; hanging inside is men’s clothing, but hanging from those pieces are various miniature items of women’s wear–a bra, skirts, a pink bathrobe. These are described by New York Times critic Holland Cotter as having “suddenly slipped out to reveal the wearer’s true identity,” but the brightly colored women’s clothing also gives the feel of a flowering garden.

Just as women artists in the 70s made fabric-based pieces to celebrate the “women’s work” previous eras had undervalued, so gay artists have offered alternatives to traditional notions of masculinity. Charles has the feel of a coming-out statement, as does Come Together (1996), a fabric piece that’s both triumphantly goofy and almost self-deprecatingly excessive. Acknowledging that the work is “flamboyant,” LeDray describes it as a “rainbow of tiny clothes over the outstretched arms of a hippie-embroidered work shirt.” Critic Ken Johnson claims it’s “an homage to the artist’s mother,” who legally changed her name to Rainbow in the 70s. But no one seems to have mentioned the rainbow of the gay pride flag stitched along the garment’s top edge or the huge arc, extending between the shirt’s outstretched sleeves, from which dangle small women’s clothes.

LeDray says the rainbow doesn’t just stand for gay pride but is a kind of “catchall symbol” in which people see what they want to see. While he took the title from the Beatles song, and the design of the shirt from the hippie era, and both references hint at a tribal inclusiveness that echoes LeDray’s obsessions as a collector, the title also suggests simultaneous orgasm.

It’s become increasingly common to collect and arrange ordinary mass-culture artifacts and call the result art. While some such works are great, too often this approach offers an easy out to artists who never really learned their craft. LeDray–a consummate crafts-man who’s taken only two art courses, neither of which he completed–reverses this idea, making elegant handmade versions of ordinary objects. The 2,000 inch-high white pots of Milk and Honey (1996), arranged on six glass shelves in a glass case, were all thrown by hand. Each appears to be a different design, and while some are elaborate, most are simple. Because the top shelf is almost at eye level, and because the eye gets lost with so many objects so close together, it’s virtually impossible to look at every pot. Even more than LeDray’s clothing pieces, this installation positions the artist in a world apart, one we can glimpse but never fully inhabit ourselves.

While Untitled/Mattress asks us to speculate about its history, the miniature pure white vessels in Milk and Honey have an impenetrable quality. In part because they’re handmade and each one is different, they may conjure up associations, but the viewer is more focused on their essence. They suggest a vast alternative universe in which elegant objects are imbued with infinite possibility and the act of making them is its own justification. Johnson wrote in Art in America that “each empty vessel is like a funerary urn, a memorial to a departed soul.” Surely AIDS lurks in the background, but this labyrinthine, luminous accretion also goes beyond specific associations.

The show’s finest work is Buttons (2001). Arranged in a case within a rough circle that itself suggests cosmic wholeness are 130 buttons, each of a different design; most are circular, but there are also stars, ovals, and other shapes. Some bear relief carvings, and two tiny two-holed ones next to each other reveal that one is a bit more convex than the other. All the buttons are hand carved from human bone (which LeDray says he obtains “legitimately”).

LeDray began using human bone in 1995–in Wheat, for example, an elegant carving of a stalk of the plant. Some have seen an AIDS reference here too. And LeDray admitted the possibility of poetic meanings when he told Hilarie M. Sheets in the New York Times, “It’s just calcium, but it’s of human origin, so it’s charged in a lot of different ways.” He added that he “was trying to make something that’s about life, something that’s adding rather than taking away.”

The progression of the works here suggests that LeDray’s belief in the constructive power of making objects by hand is his main theme. Of course once you know that Buttons is made of human bone, the psychological association with death is inescapable–yet the buttons have an existence separate from that. Indeed, the great achievement of this piece is to wed everyday human concerns with a purity beyond such concerns. One wouldn’t immediately connect LeDray with surrealism, but Andre Breton in his Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929) describes well the way Buttons reconciles opposites: “There is a certain point in the spirit from which life and death, real and imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable are no longer perceived as contradictions.”