LeDray works out of context
The piece de resistance in Charles LeDrays exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago is a large jewelers window, empty and darkened but backlit so we see only the overall contour of many velvet-covered supports for necklaces, bracelets, earrings and wristwatches.
This might be perceived as a sculptural installation but its everyday association rather gets in the way, and were not sure how to think of it because jewelers windows would not seem to yield much a sculptor could use; yet here it all is, somehow having the aura of sculpture.
Many of LeDrays pieces from the last 13 years prompt the same sort of reaction because we cannot relate them to any movement, style or artists from our period. And that is pretty wonderful, though its also unsettling.
The nature of LeDrays sculpture proves hard to describe insofar as its familiar forms have been rendered unfamiliar by having been put in an artistic context. Many of the pieces are, for example, clothes that are meticulously sewn and detailed. These clothes are tiny, as if intended for dolls. But their impact does not come from size as much as display, addressing us from miniature hooks and hangers like so many shrunken or shredded suits.
Why the clothes disturb is less easy to say. They trigger something universal in memory, perhaps regarding childhood, though I cannot fathom what it is or just why it has taken on a tone of melancholy.
Sometimes the artist multiplies his clothes, stringing lots of them together or setting them side by side with other small effigies. This does not deepen their melancholy but, on the contrary, dissipates it. The tone of such pieces is entirely different from the others. Its neutral, emphasizing the quietude of patience and craft where one might expect the thrill of obsession.
But that, too, changes with LeDrays materials. What holds for 2,000 miniature ceramic vessels (in Milk and Honey) or hundreds of fabrics (workworkworkworkwork) is not true of ivorylike carvings and constructions from human bone. Even when multiplied, these pieces retain a frisson of the inexplicable: Why should anyone use that material to make a tiny paneled door or minuscule furniture or a single filament of wheat?
The show also includes pieces made up of buttons, a small stained mattress and rows of hats. Viewers are likely to be disarmed by them, not knowing what the artist was up to. He pretty much refuses to explain his work, and what supporters have written has not brought us closer to its meaning.
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.
Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelhia, Charles LeDray, Sculpture 1989-2002 continues at the Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario St., through Dec.21.
-Alan G. Artner