Lives Revealed

Garage sales offer a glimpse into other people's lives. I still remember a Montrose yard sale a few doors down from my old house. All the residents of a triplex were selling their unwanted crap, and there was this big biker-looking guy sitting on a lawn chair next to a box brimming with videocassettes. Printed in marker on the front of the box were the words "TRIPLE XXX BETAMAX PORN." He still looked pissed he hadn't invested his smut dollars in VHS.

Artist Charles LeDray makes work that peers into the lives of others, both real and imagined. In photographs, his highly evocative sculptures seem to be assemblages created from other people's cast-offs. In reality, they are painstakingly crafted, small-scale versions of old clothes, hats, shoes and underwear — all made by LeDray himself. "Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork" is a major mid-career retrospective of the artist's work organized by Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art and currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The show is titled after a 1991 LeDray piece inspired by the street sales the artist saw in New York. These weren't suburban, unload-the-consumer-excess garage sales. Instead, they were born out of poverty and desperation, impromptu affairs held on the sidewalk by homeless people who had scavenged up items from the street and were trying to resell them.

Comprised of 588 Barbie-size clothes and objects grouped into a series of tiny "sale" vignettes, Workworkworkworkwork runs along the base of an approximately 30-foot gallery wall at the MFAH. At first glance, the dollhouse-size objects and tiny clothes seem "cute" — they reminded me of the Barbie apparel my friends' crafty grandmothers made from Butterick patterns. But "cute" is a brief first impression that quickly dissipates, replaced with "sad" and "seedy."

The installation's items include an assortment of worn and stained white shirts; little crumpled coats with satin lining arranged for sale or used to display a single plate or a chipped coffee cup; and miniature magazines, probably made from tiny, collaged, color Xeroxes.

The titles are hard to see (you can't lean too far forward over the guard rail or a sensor will go off), but I could make out the words "Celeb" and "Newsmagazine," and I saw one with a graphic about the AIDS crisis on the cover. There are also porn magazines for various orientations and tastes, with suggestive images and titles like "Jock" and "Sin." You obviously can't touch the work, so you don't know if the artist's thoroughness extended to recreating the publications' content. The arrangement and layering of magazines creates little text pieces from the titles; one column contains the words "inside," "demons," "world" and "arts."It's a portrait of a lonely, desperate world.

LeDray's Village People (2003-2006) is an even more involved and highly evocative collection of objects. The work consists of 21 tangerine-size hats, apparently based on actual ones the artist has seen. There's an embroidered Tyrolean number with a "pheasant" feather, hand-cut and painted by the artist; a red, white and blue D.A.R.E. baseball hat; a hardhat; a FUBU baseball cap; one of those dumbass "jester" ski hats; and an equally dumbass "umbrella" hat. As with other LeDray works, each object is fascinating not only for the incredible skill involved in its creation, but also for the owner you imagine it having.

The thing about LeDray's work is, you could take actual, life-size versions of the objects he uses and probably create a decent installation. But, by obsessively creating each and every thing himself, and on a smaller scale, the artist gives the content more layers. This is nowhere more true than in his epic installation Men's Suits (2006-09).

Shown in a separate gallery, Men's Suits is comprised of three thrift store scenes — two retail areas and one back room. The floors are made from worn squares of linoleum; the ceilings are dropped tiles with fluorescent lighting. Standing in the gallery, you look down on the (purposefully) dusty back of the suspended ceiling tiles. To view them best, you need to crouch down on the floor; the scale of the objects is about right for a toddler.

The lights are different shades of fluorescent bulbs, their plastic covers littered with what look like dead moths (artfully mimicked with pencil shavings.) In one retail scene, hideous jackets are smashed together on circular racks. In the other, equally lurid ties are fanned out on a circular table. LeDray may be obsessive, but he's not so obsessive that he's weaving his own fabric. He had to choose obnoxious patterns that were small enough to work with the scale of the clothing.

The "back room" is the most riveting scene in the installation. It's filled with racks of clothes, rolling canvas laundry bins brimming with more clothes, and bulging laundry bags. And everywhere, everywhere there are piles of hangers, the kinds of hanger piles you've seen in every thrift store you've ever been into. There are the clear plastic hangers, the white plastic hangers, wire hangers and those dry cleaners' hangers with the paper "We Our Customers" wrapping. And just to remind you, he made each and every one of these freaking hangers.

LeDray is a master storyteller who uses his eye for visual detail to craft rich tales. Men's Suits is so perfectly detailed and convincing, we know the hangdog feel and the smell of the place. But while we immediately recognize it, I doubt any of us could stage it ourselves. And the thing is, this installation isn't just a depressing scene of a rundown building filled with unwanted and unattractive crap. There is the whiff of something deeply unsettling here — it's faint, but it's there. It's almost as if it's the scene of a crime, and a serial killer or a child molester volunteers at the thrift store on the weekends. Underneath the superficial grimness of Men's Suits, there lies something really and truly grim.

This uneasy undercurrent runs through all of LeDray's work to one degree or another — his sculpture of a cluster of flip-flops hanging on a string reminded me of a Colonel Kurtz ear necklace — but it's probably most up-front in his tiny sculptures made from human bone. (Human bone is available from osteological supply houses, but LeDray isn't really working in it anymore. There has been a lot of controversy about some human bone sources, which has apparently included grave robbing.)

If you think sewing all those little clothes yourself is involved, carving bone is even worse. It takes forever. The natural colors of the 130 buttons crafted from human bone for Buttons (2000-01) are as varied as the sizes, styles and ornamentation of the buttons themselves. Ornate Victorian, deco and even carrot-shaped, the buttons read as a cast of highly varied characters. In spite of their macabre material, there is something sort of pure and poignant about the bone works. They don't hide their origins. Orrery (1994) is an approximately five-inch-high sculpture of a solar system model. It's our little neck of the galaxy, impeccably carved from one of our bones.

LeDray is a fascinating and complicated artist. And while "Workworkworkworkwork" offers an immediate payoff in terms of amazing craftsmanship, this is the kind of show that bears multiple visits. No matter how much time you spend with it, there is still more to uncover.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer