Tender Buttons: The Art of Charles Ledray

Article excerpt

The noise of all the fashioned objects existing in the world is incessant, a racket of fabrication, location, use, reuse, repair, value, and, in the least insistent of whispers, meaning. This ambient noise explains why the silence of an art gallery is not merely conventional, but pertains to its objects themselves. How many extraneous sounds must an artwork filter so its own particular tones may be heard? Is this why contemporary art that refers to use - the most strident of material declarations - must find contemporary tactics that dampen the din of usefulness?

Charles LeDray's first solo New York show, in 1993 at the Tom Cugliani Gallery, consisted mostly of objects made of objects that resembled clothes. Clothing, even clothing with quotes around it, is risky to employ as an art ingredient because it is among the "noisiest" of object categories: immediately and universally recognizable yet culturally and personally specific, reverberant with centuries of connotation and cliche. Of course, when sculpture in the form of clothing is compared to, say, a present-day painting of a horse, a similar artistic problem does rear its head, in this case a sentimental neigh that echoes back to the hollows of Lascaux. All representational art is noisy, it's true. But unlike the ostensible original live horse so many generations removed, the generic 20th-century shirt or skirt had already been conceived and fashioned - represented - before it was refashioned and re-represented by the artist, by LeDray. Mimetic refashioning is this artist's method and challenge, and LeDray's strategies of "silencing" the common noise of what he represents are a good measure of his art.

I recall that it was stock-still when I walked into that gallery. I didn't understand why until later: the "clothes" on the wall had thoroughly absorbed the clothing noise they initially evoked, quieting the street fashion and SoHo windows, the "this looks like this" or "that looks like that" viewers were tempted to claim - even the Japanese shirt off my own back. After a while, listening closely, I could hear something like muffled cries, whimpers, dolly conversations: a little boy alone, a little girl? Also, I picked up the random click of a needle on a thimble, the snap of a pulled thread. Recognition was sucked out of the air and replaced with evocation: of women's work, of sissy play, of thwarted and constrained identity. The easy part of clothing disappeared.

Two facts of LeDray's art led to this. The first is Modernist and formal: tampering with scale. His painstaking poly housedresses, gestural seersucker robes, and gay-inflected bomber jackets and leather harnesses are "shrunk" to various, sometimes disparate (within one work) sizes. They don't seem to be made in any practical Ken or Barbie dimension, so their very existence is disconcerting, surprising. (These fabric constructions emblematize use; they cannot be worn or torn.) They feel like something at the wrong end of the memory telescope, where physical contraction corresponds to past helplessness and worthlessness - but also to secret, delicate, closet observation. It helps to remember that children do not naturally see themselves as small: some, however, are made to.

Perhaps the most ambitious, beautiful, yet disturbing of these whole-cloth pieces was not a single outfit left hanging but an almost seven-by-five-foot net of embryonic jackets, pants, dresses, robes, some in dark gray or black and others in patterns and lighter colors, sewn together sleeve-to-leg and collar-to-skirt into a stretched web of male and female lives. At a distance this untitled piece of 1993 appeared to be an abstract fabric work, the darker areas positioned to focus the plane and move the eye through it. But up close, patterns sharpened suddenly into suburban connective tissue, each unambiguous, sitcom costume warped into El Greco-like distress by the weight of every other. A safety net of victims? A Salvation Army bin - and all its attendant misery and failure - finally transformed? …