Letting it All Hang Out: A Review of Charles Le Dray's Retrospective

“Charles”, 1995, fabric, thread, metal, plastic, paint. (48.3 x 35.6 x 11.4 cm).

By Lucie-Marie Layers

The work of the American sculptor and artist Charles LeDray was presented in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum these past winter months. The magnificent oeuvre of his most well-known craft – miniature clothing (and other media) made to a maximum effect – has been described by Whitney’s Curator of Drawings, Carter Foster, as “transporting pieces”, where LeDray offers an uncanny viewpoint of ordinary (mostly male) clothing and its implied wearers.

The context of much of his work pivoted around the idea of male identity, and of that particular branch of masculinity referred to as ‘machismo’. This was construed rather deliberately in LeDray’s piece from 1993 “World’s Greatest Dad”. This features a small-scale bomber jacket complete with a constellation of patches referring to quintessential macho clichés. Machismo is often translated into instances of "superior," exaggerated features such as physical power, personal virility and pride.You only need to conjure the character Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William’s Pulitzer-prized play "A Streetcar Named Desire" to comprehend the concept of this certain male characteristic. The writings on the baseball cap of Le Dray’s piece designates the implied wearer as #1, the world’s greatest Dad (lover, alpha male, hero).

What is so interesting about the work of Charles LeDray is the way he speaks of a male stereotype in deliberate contrast to its ideal. In a rather poetic and gentle way, his miniature portraits (for his pieces are very much portraits of male identity) challenge these configurations by employing skills often associated with women - the delicacy of threading and sewing, and not least the miniature—so often associated with Victorian femininity.

Charles LeDray invites an exploration of the symbolic capital of clothing. The juxtaposition of macho ideals alongside the traditionally recognized female handicraft enables an unconventional understanding of society’s convention. This is seen again in “Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines” where LeDray’s ambitious portraits (un)intentionally diminishes man’s masquerade, presenting the ideal of masculinity as both complex and fragile.

" Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines," 1993, fabric, wire, vinyl, silkscreen, zipper.

With the exquisitely crafted “Charles” (1995) LeDray has constructed a miniature blue-collar uniform with clue as to the identity of the wearer: a name patch stitched to the chest. From this (self-)portrait hang several tinier items of clothing; colourful dresses, boxer shorts, pullovers, slacks, a brassiere, and bath robe. The complexity of this portrait can explain how costume is forever committed to concepts of identity, sexuality, community, and experience, all forming each individual, literally clinging on for their bare life.

Perhaps that explains why the real-life Charles LeDray is rather elusive. Born in Seattle in 1960, now living and working in New York City, he would rather let his work speak for itself than determine it. Preferring not to discuss his work, this exhibition surely was a way to let himself and his miniature male counterparts hang out more than ever.

The Charles LeDray exhibition was held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, before it traveling to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

"Overcoat'" 2004, fabric, wood, metal, paint, plastic, thread.

Lucie-Marie Cecilie Jespersdatter Layer is an artist and a graduate of the masters in Visual Culture: Costume Studies at NYU. She is currently based in New York City, her previous work experiences include Cheap Date (UK) and The Royal Danish Ballet.