Arranged across the ground floor of a former fire station in Marylebone, London, Mens Suits* alluded to a charity shop or thrift store. The work was configured into three distinct tableaux, demarcated by floor tiles and suspended lighting systems, and related to different ways in which clothing is encountered in a second-hand shop; careful displays, casual racks and chaotic piles.
All the items of clothing carried a feeling of having being used. They had a life, dressing some body, and bore a sense of fatigue. They were waiting to be used again. Surrogates for identity, they embodied the desire to reveal and conceal: to be marked out as an individual and belong to a tribe.
Mens Suits imparted no specific stories. The clothes kept their secrets. Taken as a totality however, Le Dray's ensemble invited reflection on larger narratives of conformity and difference, rejection and renewal, value and use in contemporary society.
Following its presentation in London, Mens Suits was exhibited at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam , and was subsequently included in a major survey of the artist's work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Whitney Museum in New York and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 2010–2011.
*Mens Suits was intentionally given in the vernacular, neglecting grammatical conventions.
Image: Folded shirts, t-shirts and jumpers, a detail from Mens Suits by Charles LeDray, 2009. Photograph: Tom Powel
What I'm struck by first off is the quietness actually. Because you come in here and you realise that once upon a time, probably not that long ago, this would have been the scene of quite frenzied noisy activity: guys in uniforms sliding down poles, rushing towards engines. LeDray has gone against all that and created something completely 'other'.
Directed by Sam Blair
Image: Coat hangers on a clothing rail, part of Mens Suits by Charles LeDray (2009). Photograph: Julian Abrams
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.
Image: detail from Mens Suits by Charles LeDray, 2009. Photograph: Julian Abrams.
Mens Suits is at first glance an example of a decorative genre. But the clutter begins to say other things. Here, in miniature, is one aspect of the cacophonous visual abundance that surrounds us. Richness and variety were once the prerogative of the wealthy. — The London Review of Books, 6 August 2009
It is not clear which men LeDray is referring to, only that worn-out, second-hand clothes are being used to represent them. Every fold tells a story - about a period of life lived and now finished but one that insists on reclaiming at least some attention even after being used for something else. The states of mind that emerge from them, like modesty, exuberance, humour, seriousness, impetuousness and sweetness, in the absence of a human presence, depend solely on these non-essential things. They are transformed into attitudes, and as such take turns in suggesting diverse and simultaneous interpretations for the work. — Michele Robecchi, Domus (Italy), April 2009.
The scale excites tenderness, delight and a sort of pity. It is extraordinary how the clothes look old and new. Fastidiously refashioned, they wear their hopeful hearts on their sleeves. Yet they are also tired, telltale and secondhand. But what I love most is LeDray's determination to release the clothes from any need to be worn, leaving them free to have lives of their own. — Kate Kellaway, The Observer, 12 July 2009.
LeDray’s work has been compared to that of contemporaries such as Robert Gober and Mike Kelley, but although I can see many areas in which these artists share an interest in common themes, like social and economic class, for me the most helpful context in which to view him is as the heir to American realist artists of the Depression era. Though he never represents the human figure, the world he shows us is the city life that Reginald Marsh would have recognised. He looks with infinite compassion on the belongings of the dispossessed and the down and out, the downside of the American dream. — Richard Dorment The Telegraph, 20 July 2009.
Charles LeDray was born in Seattle in 1960 and now lives and works in New York. He did not receive conventional artistic training; he began his career as a security guard at the Seattle Art Museum, then worked as an art handler for a private gallery where his first piece of work was selected for inclusion in a group show only hours before the opening.
Based in a small Manhattan studio, LeDray labours single-handedly for years on each new project. Working mainly with textiles and ceramics, he meticulously stitches and sews, glazes and throws all his work. Past works include two thousand unique miniature porcelain vessels, over three hundred little books and magazines and jewellery and buttons carved from human bone.
Recent solo exhibitions include Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York (2007 and 2003), Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf (2004), Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2002), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2003) and Seattle Art Museum (2003). He has also had work in many group exhibitions, including most recently: Clothesline: Art, Clothing, Identity, Santa Fe Art Institute, Santa Fe (2005); Past Presence: Childhood and Memory, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2005) and Rapture: art’s seduction by fashion since 1970, Barbican Art Gallery, London (2002). LeDray has also won several awards and has work in many collections including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney; The Denver Art Museum; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Image: detail from Mens Suits by Charles LeDray, 2009. Photo: Tom Powel.
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