It's a man's man's world

By GREG COOK  |  August 3, 2010

LeDray's small world is a tonic to the macho-size race that art has engaged in since 1940s Abstract Expressionism used extra-extra-large to declare significance. "Scale is a bouillon cube that can condense and hopefully enrich a concept," he once said. His going small turns his works into metaphors and demands our attention — the way a whisper urges you to lean in close.

He fashioned toddler-sized military uniforms (1993), a suit with a large hole neatly cut from its heart (1998), and an auto mechanic's coat, shirt, tool belt, and trousers that become a sort of self-portrait when the names Charly and Chas are embroidered on the coat and shirt (2002). Village People (2003-'06, 2006-'10) is a row of little hats — cowboy, coach, department of sanitation, security guard, jester, hardhat, camouflage helmet — hung high and out of reach.

LeDray focuses on the uniforms of manhood: military fatigues, work clothes, preppy suits and ties. They represent man as protector, builder, fixer, provider. The art's resemblance to toys locates the questions about manhood in childhood dress-up, when gender, sexuality, and adulthood are gamed out. All the outfits start to feel like costumes or Village People drag. Somewhere in there is the unmooring of the traditional American notion of straight manhood.

Charles (1995) is a blue shirt, navy pants, and black work coat with the artist's name embroidered on the breast. Dangling from the hem is a fringe of smaller coats, a pink bathrobe, silver bra, dresses, skirts, a pink hoodie. Perhaps behind every great man is a great woman, or inside every man is a drag queen.

LeDray's women's clothes tend to be tinier and have less personality than his men's ensembles. The exception is Party Bed (2006-'07), a small bed piled high with visitors' coats: leopard print, black leather, red-and-green plaid with fur cuffs, sporty purple-turquoise-and-green. It's a diverse crowd, but they all appear to be women's coats. (A denim jacket buttons like a man's but has a ladylike leather glove in the pocket.) A pair of dowdy satin women's underpants has fallen under the mattress. Scale works as a time machine, transporting us back to when we were children and had to go up to bed and ponder what the adults were doing downstairs. Is it a girls' night out? A gathering of queens?

LeDray's clothes always suggest use and age, but death became an explicit theme when in 1995 he began carving human bones into buttons and a miniature, inaccurate model of the solar system and a teetering stack of teensy tables and chairs. Pride Flag (1996) seems to be a memorial to AIDS victims. The long rainbow banner, stretching vertically from ceiling to floor, has turned ashen gray. Barbie-sized gray dresses, coats, pants — mainly women's clothing, or men's drag — fringe the edges, like ghost flag carriers. His brand new Throwing Shadows presents hundreds of little soot-black porcelain pots in three long horizontal cases, like relics from a dollhouse-emperor's tomb.

The finale is LeDray's tour de force, Mens Suits. A dark gallery offers three thrift-store tableaux arranged under little drop-ceiling grids liberally covered with dust and suspended from the gallery ceiling. Underneath are racks and tables of small sport coats and colorful shirts and ties. The floor tile is stained and warped. The carpeting is so dirty that it will never get clean. A back room has bags and bins of clothes and a pile of shirts on an ironing board.

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Related: Photos: Work by Jenny Holzer at the ICA, It's a man's man's world, Streetcraft and stagecraft, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Institute of Contemporary Arts, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Charles LeDray,  More more >
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