A few years back I had the good fortune of being able to see Charles LeDray's grand retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. That exhibition was jam-packed with countless creations, each meticulously handcrafted with the artist's renowned attention to detail. In one sense, LeDray's current exhibition at the Bass Museum of Art might be considered the exact opposite, in that it consists of just four works, each set apart in its own ample space. Yet such an enumeration does not do this show justice, for the fourth piece—MENS SUITS—is a laboriously constructed three-part installation which feels almost like an exhibition unto itself. It was the pièce de résistance at the Whitney, and it plays the same role here. Yet the other three works on view are nothing to sneeze at. And the show's sparse arrangement and careful lighting allows each piece to shine, both literally and figuratively, with an emotional weight that belies its initially modest physical appearance.
The show starts with black walls and a succinct introductory wall text. In front of it, on a pedestal, lies the first piece, an unassuming life-size replica of a single stalk of wheat. This little sculpture displays many of the essential qualities that mark LeDray's work: it is at once humble and audacious, deceptively simple yet impressive in its exacting craftsmanship, and it exudes a quiet emotional power. All of these traits are further heightened once one reads the label and discovers what the sculpture is actually made of.
Charles LeDray, Wheat, 2000, human bone, 1/2 x 24 x 6 1/2 inches; Courtesy of The Cartin Collection / Photo credit: Peter Harholdt
Next, after turning a corner, the viewer finds his or herself in a dark corridor facing what at first seems to be a museum display case whose lights have malfunctioned or have been turned off. The only visible lighting comes from behind the display and is diffused by a glass or plexi backing. It is apparent that there are many objects in the display case, yet aside from the unlit overhead light bulbs it is difficult to make out what they might be. Thankfully there is a bit of ambient light making its way around the bend from the previous room, and as your eyes gradually adjust to the darkness you can start to make out what the objects are. The title also provides an explanation. However that's not the end of the story, for, like much of LeDray's work, what's truly important is not just what is there, but what is absent. (Hint: It's not just the light.) And then there is the matter of scale. The elements of the installation are all so perfectly coordinated that it can take a while before one realizes that the whole thing has actually been created in miniature. This smallness in size is a signature characteristic of LeDray's oeuvre, and one that serves to deepen his works' inherent sense of loss.
Around another corner lies another tiny piece on pedestal. Perplexing at first glance, its fanciful form and playful title set up an effective contrast with the ominous material from which it has been carved.
The last gallery houses LeDray's masterpiece, MENS SUITS, which is comprised of three miniature "rooms," each about the same size, and each recreating a different section of a used clothing thrift store in miniature. The scale is such that the dropped ceilings—complete with dust bunnies—hang at about the heart-level of an average-size adult. This forces us to stoop down in order to fully absorb the painstakingly assembled interiors, in which every possible detail seems to have been included—with the notable exceptions of people or walls. Floor tiles in all three sections are appropriately dingy and scuffed, and the ceiling panels contain yellowed plastic light fixtures, all adding to the realism of these aged-looking, forlorn vignettes.
In the first section circular clothes racks are filled with quirky out-of-style sport coats and randomly-hung shirts on mismatched hangers. More shirts, mostly T's, have been gently folded but then haphazardly piled atop a wooden table. The diminutive size of the clothes gives them a sense of cuteness, yet the spot-on drabness of the surroundings also lends the scene an air of melancholy.
The second section implies management's attempt for the store to look slightly more elegant. There is a headless armature modeling a jaunty ensemble—a sport coat (albeit unfinished) together with shirt, tie, and pants. And there is a wide selection of ties, carefully arranged in a radiating pattern on a circular table. But the floor is a hodge-podge of the old tiles plus several areas of threadbare brown carpet.
The third and final section depicts the thrift store's back room staging area. It is a tour de force of controlled chaos, chock-full of clothing and other tools of the trade. There are canvas bins, wood palettes, large lumpy sacks (apparently filled with clothes), an ironing board, a ladder, a furniture dolly, a rug, a broom, and a clothing rack with different types of hangers. Visible clothing includes socks, pants, shirts, suits, ties, a raincoat and a lone scarf. There is pathos here, but there is also something else—a kind of homage to the gritty vitality of everyday work.
Breathtaking in scope and poignant in effect, MENS SUITS is truly a must-see. And this exhibition—like each of its components—is much larger in spirit than the sum of its parts.
(Image on top right: Charles LeDray, MENS SUITS, 2012, mixed media, variable dimensions; Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York / Photo credit: Peter Harholdt)