MENS SUITS is on view in Corpus Domini at Palazzo Reale, Milan until 30 January 2022.
On this occasion, we delve into Charles LeDray's most immersive installation, MENS SUITS (2006-2009), commissioned by Artangel and first presented in 2009 in a 19th century Victorian firehouse in London. Subsequent installations were mounted at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art as part of LeDray’s major mid-career survey that travelled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and at The Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach.
For more than thirty years, New York-based sculptor Charles LeDray (b. 1960, Seattle) has meticulously sewn, cast, and hand-made a world in miniature. In contrast to the art world’s love of super-sized spectacle, LeDray’s work comprises scaled-down replicas of found or imagined everyday objects whose factual appearance disguises the remarkable means of their creation. He casts these objects (a tie, suspenders, a wedding ring; a stack of industrial bricks, mortar oozing between them; cinder blocks, work gloves, a janitor’s mop) into familiar and enigmatic narratives. The imagery is concrete: eerily detached from reality by scale, yet the artist’s attention to detail renders the work true to life. LeDray’s work conjures up stories of human experience in much the same way that yard sales offer glimpses into other people’s lives.
MENS SUITS comprises three sections of a thrift store selling men’s clothing, each section distinguished by a drop ceiling, lighting fixtures, and worn linoleum tiled flooring. Two of the tableaus represent the store, the third stands in for a back room storage space. Racks and canvas bins are filled with clothes and stuffed with bulging laundry bags. A pinwheel of neck-ties covers a table in one of the showrooms; alongside stands with loosely folded, stained t-shirts and pilling sweaters and racks of crumpled coats with satin linings. Stacks of wooden pallets and an old broom with frayed, gritty bristles fill the back room. Everything, right down to the pipe racks and ubiquitous wire dry cleaners’ hangers with the paper wrapping declaring “We Heart Our Customers,” was handmade, sewn, or cast by the artist. Even the dust coating the suspended ceiling panels adds to the bargain-basement ambiance. These carefully considered details ground the work with a deeply felt sense of reality, as if the viewer is physically present inside a memory of a real time and place.
Ledray’s installations are accumulated environments designed to hold your attention. They draw you in with detail, always tempting you to come closer.
Clothes are strewn everywhere and yet there is not a body to be found, save the headless tailor’s dummy. Alone and spectral, the unoccupied outfit recalls Robert Gober’s handsewn satin wedding gown as it first stood against a backdrop of domesticity and turn-of-the-century ideals of American womanhood at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1989. In MENS SUITS, as in Gober’s Untitled (1989-1996), the body is confronted in new ways and everyday objects are imbued with beauty, mystery, and the psychological intensity of domestic and/or sentimental spaces. The lack of a figure prompts questions like where is the body and whose body is it? It could be the artist - the hidden hand behind the scenes. MENS SUITS alone took three years to make and the viewer is confronted with the hours LeDray spent cutting, sewing, and building each element, challenged to consider the pride of craftsmanship, the drudgery of manual labor, and the connotations of both. The fact that these are used clothes suggests absence, loss, and an individual history tied to each garment. Or the body in question could belong to the viewer – the giant empowered body surveying the scene from above with a god’s eye view. The universe of shrunken goods magnifies the viewer’s ungainly physical presence as well as the privileged position LeDray has put them in. From up above, an overall establishing shot of the scene unfolds and the viewer is able to see things not normally in view. One could argue that the artist is not shrinking the clothes, as much as he is enlarging the viewer by comparison. At the same time, the viewer has the option to change their perspective - to crouch down and see the space from the inside. The contrast of scale between viewer and artwork offers insight into LeDray’s logic: In miniature, close inspection is compulsory. Details are revealed and assessed, demanding a level of engagement that can lead to discovery.
“LeDray explores male identity in a funny but deadly serious way. His work asks, ‘Is our clothing a costume that masks ourselves?”
-- ICA Associate Curator Randi Hopkins
The title of the work can be read on multiple levels. It references the type of declarative signage often used in advertising. One store in particular, located in a modern grid-like former bank building in New York’s Flatiron District, whose plain navy signs promised low prices, top designers, and “MENS SUITS”* for the masses. A suit is a type of formalwear typically marketed toward men. Businessmen are sometimes called suits, something can be suited to you, one can follow suit, or a suit could be an appeal to someone who has something you want – like money or a certain lifestyle. LeDray challenges his viewer to question whether the clothes they wear help to define or obscure their true identity. There is also a pugilistic aspect to the title that suggests going against each other, as in the case of a lawsuit. All of this wordplay is active in LeDray’s installation where the clashing patterns themselves battle for a viewer’s attention.
*MENS SUITS was intentionally given in the vernacular, neglecting grammatical conventions.
Inspiration for LeDray came in part from a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1991 where he saw the Costume Institute’s exhibition of Théâtre de la Mode (Theater of Fashion). The original touring exhibition comprised dozens of one-third-life-size mannequins in miniature French haute couture, promoting a fashion industry struggling to recover in the wake of World War II. Artists and theatrical designers like Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard were hired to produce the elaborate sets that accompanied the mannequins on their tour across Europe and the United States. The historian Lorraine McConaghy commented on the level of detail in the clothing, saying: “The meticulous attention to detail is so striking ... The buttons really button. The zippers really zip. The handbags have little stuff – little wallets, little compacts – inside them.” By the time LeDray saw the revival in New York, the mannequins had been extensively restored and the original sets had been lost and recreated. Still, the effect was one of awe and revelation and the impact can be seen throughout his work, most notably in MENS SUITS where his painstaking attention to detail and materials is married with a sense of space, collective memory, and theater.
“At a time when contemporary art is often wholly dependent on words, the silent, apparently simple but persistently elusive work of LeDray is akin to a blessing.”
-- Alan Artner
There is something anti-monumental and disconcerting about MENS SUITS. The store is open but nobody is there, creating an empty landscape of people’s cast-offs, stage lit by fluorescent tubes. LeDray’s work communicates a certain type of homesickness – memories of another time and place. These are real places. Real clothes. Real people. By directing our attention to the details of his everyman’s discarded clothing, LeDray points out the way in which we indulge in nostalgic self-reflection by projecting our feelings onto inanimate objects. His work may evoke a sense of mourning for the lives implied by absent bodies. This habit of tugging at the viewer’s memory and heartstrings is in keeping with Robert Gober and Mike Kelley, contemporaries of LeDray who share a similar interest in themes like social and economic class, as well as an integrity in terms of production quality and attention to fine detail.
The lived-in look and seemingly haphazard arrangement of handcrafted suits in MENS SUITS recalls LeDray’s first major installation, workworkworkworkwork (1991), comprised of 588 tiny handmade objects (including clothes, shoes, books, magazines, sofa cushions, bedding, etc.) that he originally displayed in 23 groupings right on the sidewalk, alongside life-size street sales held by homeless and low-income people. In this context, the miniaturization reads as a reflection of the small social status attributed to these marginalized people who have been reduced to selling what others have discarded. The work speaks to conditions of poverty and desperation, as well as wealth and privilege. Richard Dorment best summarized this aspect of LeDray’s intention when he said the following in his review of the Artangel installation:
“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.”
"Though he never represents the human figure, the world he shows us is the city life that Reginald Marsh would have recognised."
-- Richard Dorment
LeDray often employs concepts of seriality, repetition, and variation of form to engage with notions of craft and the handmade. Using the idea and history of miniatures to reveal and revel in labor, he concretizes each object’s existence. In MENS SUITS each element is completely unique, astonishingly detailed, oddly particular, and convincingly lived-in. In the context of a secondhand store, the sheer abundance of clothing sharpens our awareness of the expendability of taste and of things, as well as the value of skill and craft in our production oriented consumerist society.
In 1991 LeDray saw David Hammons installation of Central Park West and Death Fashions (both 1990) in his debut show at Jack Tilton Gallery, New York. Installed together, the various elements consisted of a coatrack filled with jet black dresses, pants, shirts and jackets, as well as a found “Central Park West” street sign speared through a bicycle with a flat front tire. With MENS SUITS as with Central Park West and Death Fashions there is an informality to the arrangements and repetition of elements within their installations. What unifies these works is their engagement with seriality, as well as the broader comments being made about identity and clothing. While LeDray’s work questions the very nature of the art object through its serial reproduction, Hammons uses repetition of structures to create a sense of ritual and sameness.
“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.”
-- James Lingwood in Longing to Belong
Ledray’s installations are accumulated environments designed to hold your attention. They draw you in with detail, always tempting you to come closer, look longer. Through his use of clothing he underscores how what we wear is inextricably interwoven with identity. It is this humanity, present across LeDray’s distinctive body of work that imbues each piece with its subtle magnetism.
In myriad materials such as sewn cloth, ceramics, carved human bone, LeDray’s works are marked by artistic invention, masterful handling of technique, and an uncanny manipulation of scale. Charles LeDray's major installation MENS SUITS (2006-2009) is included in Corpus Domini. Dal corpo glorioso alle rovine dell'anima, curated by Francesca Alfano Miglietti, opening Wednesday, 27 October, 2021 at Palazzo Reale, Milan in Italy and remaining on view through 30 January 2022.
- Lena Walker
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