I recently took a walk to see CHARLES LEDRAY: WORKWORKWORKWORKWORK, a retrospective of his work since the 80’s on exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  But first, since this is my first post, I’d like to briefly explain the title chosen for this blog:

 “Handthought”  is a deliberately ambiguous triple entendre and can refer to:

  1. The thought of a hand
  2. A thought regarding the hand
  3. A process, as a play on and reversal of handwrought ;  ideas formed(instead of realized) through the interplay of hand and material  


Charles LeDray’s meticulously crafted works easily lend themselves for discussion, he does not alter to his work with explanation (apart from some referential titles) and we are free to infer his relationship with craft.  Images of his work can be viewed by visiting:

Whitney’s exhibition page: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/CharlesLeDray

Sperone Westwater’s site:http://www.speronewestwater.com


It was Mid-day and a Friday, the last day of an overwhelming week that was almost behind me, aside from an equally daunting weekend.  A recent and impressive snowstorm had transformed New York City as well as the simple act of walking; each step to and from the subway had become a conscious decision brimming with repercussion.  If there had been a better day, I would have waited, but it turned out that seeing WORKWORKWORKWORKWORK in an exhausted and sore-handed state may have been the ideal circumstance to appreciate the work.

A truly incredible amount of handwork goes into LeDray’s pieces, nearly everything is handmade.  Reclaiming tasks that have long been forfeited to machine and industry, he sews, carves, embroiders, and much more, even creating the small clothing hangers many pieces hang on.  I not only see his labor, but also the echoes of undervalued factory workers who piecing together garments overseas.   The objects have a diminished scale ranging from genuinely tiny to about half-sized.  This sets the work apart from the mass produced items they reference while simultaneously creating a perceptual disconnect with our bodies, nudging us to come to an understanding beyond what we physically see.  

I was enthralled by his ivory and bone work especially Door (1999) and Wheat (2000).   There was a strong brooch-like scale to Door, assembled from ivory and resembling an extremely well made dollhouse door.   Made from human bone, Wheat appears to be a perfect replica of a wheat stalk complete with delicate beard.  The slender sprigs of bone were awe inspiring and caused the imaginary Charles LeDray in my mind to begin to shift from a skilled, dedicated, and obsessive seamster to something else.  But what?

Next I invested his take on pottery.  The all-white Milk and Honey (1994-96) and the nearly overstimulating and colorful Oasis (1996-2003) both consist of thousands of vases, bowls, jugs, pots, with the average size being less than one inch in height.  Housed in large glass display cases filled with glass shelf upon glass shelf, we can from below, above, and everything at once; at the right angle each becomes a nebula of permutations.

The more recent work, Throwing Shadows (2008-10), is an entirely different creature.  Again the piece consists of thousands of tiny vessels but where Milk and Honey and Oasis use multiple materials (ceramic, glass, steel, wood) and assumingly multiple processes, Throwing Shadows is focused solely on thrown black porcelain.  Additionally these pieces are displayed on a white surface on a single plane.  The pieces themselves are “thrown shadows” and their undulating forms are also “throwing shadows” as a blanket of overlapping shapes that connect each piece.  It is apparent in these pieces that these forms belong to a single maker, eerily emanating a strong sense of time, similar to viewing an entire life’s worth of work at once.  LeDray’s dedication and craftsmanship is significant, but ultimately it reference something grander (often literally bigger).

Jewelry Window (2002), installed in its own dark room, stood very separate from the rest of the work on display.  Dark enough that the black velvet display forms are hard to tell apart, I peered through the glass front of the faux display, searching.  The lack of light, repetitive forms, and knowledge of LeDray’s work created a challenge, something had to be there.  I imagined a minute gold chain, a diminutive diamond ring, anything iconic and small, but nothing.  I searched a bit longer and realized something was off; the displays retained a true to life scale.  For me, this made Jewelry Window the most self-aware of it’s craft.  Lacking jewelry we are directly confronted with the question of what is valuable and the answer has to be the display, which was handmade by single person dedicated to making it better than it needed to be.

Only later while reviewing my notes did I pick up on another scale discrepancy, another life-sized piece relating to jewelry.  Ring Finger(2004) is comprised of Ivory carved to the size and shape of the bones of a human finger, replete with gold band. Did he lack the skill or knowledge to create jewelry in tiny form or does the material of jewelry clash with he intention?  A diamond and gold ring for example, loses perceived value while it shrinks until a point where it becomes nearly microscopic and it’s value would again rise as a truly minuscule object.  Then a thought crossed my mind, what if there was something else to Jewelry Window, but it was just too small to see? Does scale’s effect on craft depend on material?  Does taking the utility out of a craft object, make it more valuable?

Ultimately the greatest impression is left by the shear amount of handwork that goes into LeDray’s objects which are able to instill awe regardless of background. Certainly, though, a personal history with object making helps to further appreciate LeDray’s dedication to laborious and intense processes that revolve around the role of the hand in making the objects around us.


CHARLES LEDRAY:WORKWORKWORKWORKWORK is on display through the weekend, ending Feb. 13th.  It will installed next at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston from May 15 2011-Sep 11 2011.

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