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After three extended visits to Charles LeDray’s exhibition, workworkworkworkwork at the Whitney, I walked away with two main thematic interpretations: the tension between the individual versus the collective and the cycle of physical “stuff” and where it all ends up.
The show opened with extremely individualized hats lined up high on the wall beyond anyone’s reach. LeDray titled this piece Village People (2003-2006). These are the hats of individuals in our society: the sailor, the cowboy, the man at the hotdog stand, the miner, the businessman, and so on. Although the hats are in perfect proportion, the scale is significantly smaller than in reality. As the show progressed, there was a piece titled Wheat, which is a twenty-four inch long grain of wheat, carved from human bone. In contrast to the hats, the wheat was lifesize and made to scale. This led me to the idea that because LeDray put everything in the scale that it is meant to be, he is making a statement about how individuals are smaller than the collective. From that idea, as well as the medium used, I believe that LeDray is showing the commonality between all people, regardless of the barriers that divide them. This idea of the individual versus society is also exposed in the thousands of porcelain vessels in Throwing Shadows (2008-2010). Not one vessel is identical to another and together they create something greater than any one individual vessel.
The second interpretation that I had about the show was the idea of where our “stuff” ends up. One of the few things that LeDray expressed about his work was his extreme interest in homelessness in New York City. Homelessness was a present issue during the time of his creation of workworkworkworkwork (1991). In this piece, LeDray laid out tiny recreations of clothing, magazines, shoes, and books, in a way mimicking how the homeless display their belongings. Comparing that to Men’s Suits (2009), there is an undeniable cycle of something that was once sold in a department store, to then being sold on the street corner by the homeless. Perhaps what connects very different people is this cycle of their stuff, which circulates through social classes, breaks barriers, and finally ends up as garbage, like anything else.
LeDray’s workworkworkworkwork responds to some very important social and political issues of our time. Overcoat (2004), a recreation of a sturdy tailored black coat covering a whole interior of delicate women’s clothing, has much to say about the reality of our society today. It symbolizes the idea that many of us hide aspects of ourselves from others by putting on a tough “overcoat.”
Again, because LeDray says very little about his inspiration and the meanings of his work, there are so many unanswered questions. Regardless of whether LeDray would agree with my assumptions or not, his art evokes conversation and a variety of interpretations, especially because he leaves so much unsaid.