PARTY BED: A sense of past lives gives LeDray’s work its Edward Hopper melancholy.
“Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork” | Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave, Boston | Through October 17
SLIDESHOW:Charles LeDray at the ICA.
Charles LeDray's World's Greatest Dad
describes the toughest bastard ever to swagger across the planet. From a little hanger dangles a doll-sized — or perhaps toddler-sized — outfit: baseball cap with "#1 World's Greatest Dad" patch, camouflage pants, and a black aviator jacket covered with patches for the Dallas Cowboys, POW-MIA, Rambo, "Cure Virginity," Marlboro, WWF, Desert Storm, and Harley-Davidson.
It's an outfit for an ideal Reagan-era bad-ass, or a dick, the kind of guy who hectors his son to be a man, suck it up, swallow your hurt. Or maybe it's a caricature, or a portrait of a fellow trying too hard to prove he's one of the guys, or a portrait of a totally butch queen.
What it means to be a man is the question at the heart of LeDray's career survey "workworkworkworkwork" at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The 54 works, spanning 25 years, are an astonishing assortment of (mainly) doll-sized outfits and furnishings. "Every detail is actually handmade by Charles," says ICA associate curator Randi Hopkins, who did much of the work on the exhibit. (Former ICA curator Nicholas Baume originally initiated the show.) It's one of the best shows you'll see in the region this year. And it feels different from recent ICA shows, which seemed to be chasing after cool — from street art to international jet-set Minimalism. It has more soul.
LeDray has a reputation for being an elusive character. Almost the only biographical information the ICA's revealing is that he was born in Seattle in 1960. He declined to be interviewed, but according to reports, he's a "hale and handsome" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) gay artist, "burly," with "enormous hands" (New York Times). He grew up in Seattle, where his hippie mom taught him sewing at age four. Otherwise, he's a largely self-taught sculptor, having dropped out of two classes at Seattle's Cornish School of Art. Instead, he worked as a guard at the Seattle Art Museum in the mid 1980s. "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," he told the Post-Intelligencer's Regina Hackett in 2003.
LeDray moved to New York in 1989 and made teddy bears, their eyes falling off and their fur seemingly rubbed thin by love. This was an illusion — he stitched them from scratch. But that sense of past lives gives his work its Edward Hopper melancholy.
One sweltering day during the summer of 1991, LeDray laid out 588 Barbie doll-sized magazines and clothes along a 45-foot-long stretch of sidewalk in New York's East Village. "workworkworkworkwork" imitated in miniature the way homeless folks sold castoff goods on the city's sidewalks. As it's re-created here, you find a teensy skirt and a pants suit, a paisley dress, shoes, women's coats, a publication called Fruity Cocktails with a burning building on front, Savor Man with George H.W. Bush on the cover, men's shirts and ties, sports and style magazines, and a collection of gay porn (Hot Man, Frat Guys, 1991 Colt, Men!). It's a portrait of New York, of America, hocking its junk to try to scrape by during the early-'90s "It's the economy, stupid" recession.