Longing to Belong

By James Lingwood, 2009

Mens Suits contains multitudes. On an obvious level, LeDray’s sculptural ensemble includes hundreds of different parts which resemble suits, shirts, ties and hangers as well as a number of tables, display racks, laundry bags, ceilings and floors, all painstakingly recreated on a diminutive scale. Less overtly, a multiplicity of possible meanings are embedded within the complex arrangements of the work. Beyond the immediate pleasures offered by the kaleidoscopic array of patterned and coloured materials and the astonishing degree of detail, LeDray’s carefully constructed world offers a meditation on appearance and identity, sameness and difference; a mise-en-scène of our current social and economic condition and the way it uses and values people and things; and a reflection on the intertwining of sculpture and the vernacular over the past century. 

All of this is distilled within three separate sections, each of them clearly demarcated by a rectangular floor on which different individual elements have been arranged, and a corresponding plasterboard ceiling from which fluorescent lights illuminate the tableaux below. The object of the sculpture comprises everything we see, from the dust resting on the top of the ceilings (themselves suspended from the ceiling of the space) to the dirt on the carpet and lino; from the voluminous number of elements made from clothing to the volume of space between the ceiling and the floor. They are like three-dimensional wedges which you can gaze into and look through.

Nothing is here by accident; everything – every last nuanced detail and implied incident - is by design. There is no particular sequence to the three sections, no beginning, middle and end; no specific narrative to follow through the successive stages of the encounter with the work, no overt pointers as to a particular interpretative route to follow. Mens Suits is a work which shows but does not tell.

In London, one of the first objects encountered is a scaled-down version of dressed tailor’s dummy, standing on a low wooden pedestal, which sits on a shabby floor of lino and carpet. The sculpture of the dummy - the most anthropomorphic of the many forms in LeDray’s sculpture – introduces what is everywhere and nowhere in Mens Suits: the human body. The extravagantly dressed figure is a work in progress, its tailoring as yet incomplete. It stands to attention, ready for inspection. Displaying its finest plumage, hoping to attract a mate, waiting for a body to be fitted to; or, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, a voice to speak for it.

To the side of the dummy a circular wooden table is covered with a large number of highly coloured ties, again laid out to be looked at and selected from. They all belong to a single type of clothing, they all have the same basic form and function. But within this conformity to type, each one of them is different, each has its own distinctive style. The careful display has an almost perfect symmetry, but toward the centre of the circle, the immaculate arrangements become entangled, as if someone has fingered the display. It is the first of many moments of visual disruption in the different sections of Mens Suits.

Most kinds of clothing have a primary purpose of covering and protecting. The function of the tie is different. Like a badge it operates only on the secondary level of the sign, to project a potential identity or personality. Collectively the ‘nest’ of ties summons up a certain kind of social structure, one which puts a premium on conformity and a buttoned-up formality, values allegiance, and foregrounds the importance of belonging to a club or group or tribe. If the ‘Homo Erectus’ of the tailor’s dummy is a solitary surrogate figure, standing proud, then the mandala of ties might invoke the homo-erotic rituals of male bonding; the huddle of bodies before a sporting contest, all for one and one for all.

Verticals and horizontals, circles and squares, diagonals and grids recur through every section of the sculpture. The circular motif of the ties finds an echo in the two round display racks, one with brightly coloured casual shirts, the other with a range of men’s suits. Some of them - the loud ones - embody a desire to have a good time, others are more retiring and speak of the need to get on. Do they function as advertisements, or as camouflage, are they revealing or concealing, are they a form of projection or a mode of protection?

All the clothing, as well as their shabby settings, suggests other, unknown lives. The clothes feel like they have been worn, then discarded for some reason or other – disinterest, rejection or death. They have had a life, dressing some body. Everything is mixed up and sorted in a different way, ordinary clothes brought together by a common fate. Handed over or retrieved, they are prepared for somebody else, waiting for another life. They are between states, between places, between bodies

If the arrangement of ties can be anthropomorphised as a huddle of male bodies, the circular display racks of suits and shirts suggest the existential merry-go-round of work and play, life and death. The long line of suits gradually being sifted in the equivalent of a back room of a second-hand store allude to men waiting in line – queuing up to see something or somebody, to get a job or a ticket or a bowl of soup. Perhaps the lines and piles of clothing and stuffed laundry bags invoke even darker associations of human bodies being sorted and selected, classified and disposed of ? The differing struggles, biological, social and psychological which Darwin, Marx and Freud in turn elaborated are embedded within the materials and forms of LeDray’s work. Through absenting the representation of the body itself from his ensembles, and withholding any specific narrative development, LeDray frees the work up to address the broader matter of the ‘body of capital’ and a system which relies on the endless circulation, use and exchange of beings and things; and suggests the need to be selected, the desire to be wanted, the longing to belong.

Over the past century, the field of sculpture has gradually expanded to include an almost limitless vocabulary of forms and materials. Sculpture’s rapid embrace of the vernacular - from Picasso and Duchamp to Oldenberg and Judd - marks out the development of the medium through the past century and Mens Suits relates a recent history of the medium and how much it owes to the vernacular forms it feeds off and plays with, and the everyday materials it uses; the grids of industrial materials on the floor and ceiling, the industrially made metal boxes, fluorescent lights and plexiglas; the piles of clothing, stacks of shirts and lines of material, one thing after another; the adoption of systems of manufacturing and display intended to eliminate the anthropomorphic form, and also the continuing reluctance of the figure to depart the stage of sculpture; the framing and fracturing of fields of vision, the constant centering and decentering of the work and the viewer; gatherings of dust, interjections of text, scatterings of form. LeDray’s sculpture knowingly replays a wide repertoire of languages and form whilst returning the objects he makes and groups to their origins within a world of manufacture and display.

Mens Suits remains resolutely mute. Though the sculpture encourages all kinds of associative thoughts, the clothes keep their secrets. The sculpture emanates a quality of suspended time - not unlike the stilled interiors of Edward Hopper’s paintings of city life – with their glimpses of solitary figures and suggestions of everyday struggles to survive and get on. Hushed and concentrated, they are like sculptural still lives, studies of fragility and instability in a material world. 

Although LeDray’s work engages in such a consummate way with the languages of sculpture, and he can be associated with a generation of sculptors who emerged in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mens Suits equally brings to mind an American artist from an earlier time, the great photographer Walker Evans. In his essay for Evans’s first book American Photographs published in 1938, Lincoln Kirsten commended the unsparing, unrhetorical qualities of the photographs as they showed “the visible effects, direct and indirect, of the industrial revolution in America, the replacement by the machine in all its complexities of the work and art once done by individual hands and hearts, the exploitation of men by machinery and machinery by men” and testified “to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin and to salvage whatever was splendid for the future reference of the survivors.” 

The dust jacket to American Photographs states that “the physiognomy of a nation is laid on your table.” In all its subtly calibrated complexity, Mens Suits does something similar. Though the materials in LeDray’s sculpture tell no stories, Mens Suitsembodies a human condition at a specific cultural moment as well as art’s attempts to find a specific language to bear witness to it.

James Lingwood is a Co-Director of Artangel