Charles LeDray, Party Bed, 2006-7, 25 3/4″ x 49 1/4″ x 4 1/2″
Small Is Beautiful
An exhibition of recent work by Charles LeDray (Sperone Westwater, 415 West 13th Street, to March 24) deals again with scale, gender, and the handmade in art. This time around most of the works are of sewn cloth. No tiny sculptures carved from human bone; no cases filled with miniature, perfectly thrown vessels. New to me are necklaces on bust forms and an array of pincushions, which are, of course, in the tradition of the self-referring artwork.
LeDray specializes in clothes for, I guess, imaginary dolls or absent action heroes, functioning as symbolic investigations into role-playing (all clothes are drag), the self, artworks, and other existentional subjects. These small garments are sometimes autobiographical and sometimes a bit expressionistic. A string of diminutive men’s hats continues his look at trades, trade, and the chapeau as social signal begun with his Village People of 1995. In contrast to his usual deconstruction of masculinity, the multiple pin cushions now on display are of the high-heel shoe variety, which no self-respecting macho man would countenance.
Yes, even the midget coats strewn upon the dollhouse bed in Party Bed were stitched up by the artist. Miniatures play with whimsy; whereas the monumental threatens bombast. If whimsy were the point, Party Bed would not work. We, the giants looking down, once wore these coats in some former life, some Incredible Shrinking Man universe. The party’s over!
The small Straightjacket is not whimsical either. In fact one of the miracles of LeDray’s art is that it is not whimsical, ever. Certainly not his miraculous anti-netsuke of human bone.
Looking through the catalog for LeDray’s 2000 Philadelphia ICA survey, I was reminded of these tiny objects:
Bone Rocker (1995), Ladder (1997), Music Stand (1997), Door (1999), Washstand (1999), Wheat (2000), Tellurian (2000), and Buttons (2000-01) made of 130 buttons.
Some of the meanings are obvious, but no less powerful. Others are conundrums. Could the list of subjects be expanded?
Re: human bone, “He enjoys using it because it is horrific and deals with the issue of human mortality. ‘It is possibly the most charged material one could use outside of human flesh,’ LeDray said.” (Megan Braasch, “LeDray Exhibits Small-Scale Art,” The Lantern, U. of Ohio, Columbus, 2/16/00.)
I want to ask: But where does he get the bone?
And then I found some images of workworkworkwork, his 45 foot long streetwork of ’91 — 588 little items, meticulously rendered, it would appear, and all laid out on a sidewalk near Cooper Union in the East Village. This was made in sympathy with the homeless sidewalk merchants who were being harassed by the police. LeDray has said that in this piece he was trying to show how the vending of the homeless is so miniature in comparison to the control the police have over their lives.
I want to say: By extension, the small clothes he sews may represent how miniature and insignificant gender is in comparison to other issues. ….
Is this the same sidewalk site near Cooper Union where David Hammons tried to sell snowballs in 1983? So near to home, what else have I missed?
LeDray, Straightjacket, 07. 15″ H.
The Handmade Never Goes Out of Fashion
Like Kiki Smith’s utilization of the handmade, LeDray’s dedication to patience and fortitude may be a reaction to the machine-shop minimalism of a previous generation. But it may also be ironic. And just as Smith’s appropriation of sewing is a bow to feminism and women’s work, LeDray’s embrace of sewing is a nod to Queer Theory. Men are not supposed to sew, which, of course, is silly considering the tailor’s noble trade. Nevertheless, we miss the point in both cases if we do not factor in the poetry of the handmade. Handmade things have more aura.
Some of this aura is literature. By this I mean that if we were suddenly told that LeDray farmed out his practice, certain emotions would disappear. But if you think you can separate art from language, you are wrong.
Come to think of it, how do I really know LeDray sews? He says so; everyone says so. In art, we sometimes need faith.
Nevertheless, a doctorate might be obtained by someone setting up a test. Can participants tell the difference between a hat made by the man who designed it and his hat made by someone else? Or by robotics? I think that, for non-experts, there are subliminal cues. Quilts have been made with sewing machines since the invention of same, yet hand-sewn quilts have a different “feel” that is subliminally derived from the slightly irregular stitching that human hands will always impart.
I prefer to think there is a spiritual residue left behind in a handmade object. Care in making is not exactly love, but it is a close second. Objects can also be made with anger and hatred, but let’s not go there.
LeDray, Wheat, 2000. Human bone, 6 1/2″ x 24″ x 1/2″.
The Scales Have Fallen
“What people do with your art once they buy it is a constant problem. If your art is a small sculpture, it will end up on a bookshelf or coffee table. If it’s a small painting, it will end up in the hall or in some decorator arrangement with a number of other small paintings and drawings, prints, photographs. Help!
Make it big. Make it too big. Only then will it stand up to the clutter.”
·——— relative magnitude; “they entertained on a grand scale”
·——— the ratio between the size of something and a representation of it; “the scale
of the map”; “the scale of the model”
But beyond these dreary, everyday meanings, “scale” in art can also mean appropriate and yet dramatic size in relationship to subject and/or meaning, context and surroundings — a kind of semantic, differential calculus.
When an artist or critic says “X has scale,” it has oomph, but not so much that it is more about size than truth. When someone says “the scale is off,” the meaning is that the sculpture or the painting is too big (or too small) for its britches, rather than that in a painting of apples and grapes, the grapes are too big.
Scale can’t be measured or weighed. Scale holds the room. Scale is magnitude and attitude but not longitude and latitude.
“Scale,” even in its specialized use in art, certainly has something to with the relative rather than the essential, although without too much strain one could propose that ratios are themselves essentials. Measurement only measures itself.
But isn’t scale an art essence, like presence?
If we know what we mean when we say someone has stage presence, then we should know scale. Scale is an artwork’s presence — in the gallery, the room, and even in art history. A painting needs to hold the wall; and a sculpture needs to hold the room or sometimes the wall too.
It will be interesting to see if Richard Serra’s huge steel works in his forthcoming MoMA retrospective will demonstrate their relational appropriateness along with their ambition. I have seen enough of his work over the years to expect that they will, unless those MoMA spaces prove overwhelming or underwhelming and not much of a foil.
But diminutive artworks can exhibit scale also. That LeDray works small, as they say, is not an innovation. There have been others before, usually in one way or another reacting to the gigantism that the art world seems to require. Big art for big men. Even if not meant as a direct critique, some diminutive work of, let us say, Richard Tuttle at his most subtle, certainly is informed by a kind of art history judo. Or contrariness. Or perversity. If everyone is straining to work too large, than obviously you will be ahead of the curve if you tackle the small.
Try this experiment: take any object (toy, pit, stone, leaf, eraser) and place it on the floor of an empty white room. It will exhibit scale. Both the room and the object will immediately become more visible.
Question: if scale is so automatic, so easy, is it worthwhile? In some sense, the planes and the space of the room function as frame. And we all know that something framed is better seen. Isn’t that what cameras do for us?
Almost any painting will look better hung on a wall than leaning against that very same wall. Trying to grasp an exhibition before it is installed is really much too difficult.
Studio visits used to present the same problem. I remember that in my first days at Art News, under the respectable Tom Hess, we fledglings had to view and review art before it was galleried so our single-paragraph pufferies would be in print when the shows were on view. Was this so that the viewer could compare our telegraphic texts to the stuff we were attempting to describe? Or so that whatever we wrote (description is always read as praise) would function as advertisement? In any case, this was before all artists were wealthy and knew enough to style their lofts into ersatz galleries for the proper presentation of their products. In the Dark Ages of reviews based on studio visits, unpleasant surprises would sometimes occur. A group of paintings that seemed just fine in some ratty old former sweatshop on Mercer Street or even some elder’s cat-hair infested living-room studio, removed from its homey context and the artists good-will, turned back to dross on clean walls illuminated by track lighting. Or the reverse.
Although Degas proposed that ballerinas were interesting when at ease – as interesting as washerwoman, I guess, or aged ladies of the night – balletomanes prefer them on their toes. Soldiers look better when standing at attention; many flowers look best in vases, even weeds, if properly arranged.
“I want to take drama and condense it down into a size that you would not expect,” said the usually not loquacious LeDray, as quoted in The Lantern, as cited above. [Artists take heed. Anything you say, can end up available on the internet!]
Or in his catalogue interview published to go along with his Philadelphia ICA survey (2002): “All my work is the actual size it needs to be.” This is my favorite artist’s quote of the decade.
FOR AN EMAIL ARTOPIA ALERT WHEN NEW ENTRIES ARE POSTED