Critics’ Picks

Charles LeDray, Buttons, 2000–2001, human bone, dimensions variable.

New York

Charles LeDray

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
November 18 - February 13

While Paul Thek’s revivalist survey commands the Whitney’s fourth floor, Charles LeDray’s midcareer retrospective just downstairs evokes a more intimate (but no less worthy) sort of reverence. Displaying numerous handmade works from, bafflingly, just over two decades, the exhibition reveals thousands of tiny sculptures within sculptures, which together reflect the strange sensitivity of a staggeringly focused and nimble-fingered artist.

LeDray’s personal history and social consciousness bolster even some of the earliest pieces on view. The show’s eponymous installation, workworkworkworkwork, 1991, for example, re-creates in doll size the sidewalk displays of coats, porn magazines, clothes, and other wares that LeDray saw peddled on the sidewalks of his native New York City twenty years ago. Comprising 558 painstakingly stitched and stuffed objects, the array pays homage to the former street sellers who worked an equally arduous hustle for survival. This sense of bittersweet deference resurfaces elsewhere: Buttons, 2000–2001, 130 tiny buttons carved from human bone, suggests memento mori might be worn on one’s sleeve (a charged gesture for a gay artist who witnessed New York’s AIDS crisis). Meanwhile, the more celebratory Milk and Honey, 1994–96, is a Wunderkammer of two thousand teensy hand-thrown vessels that nod to the infinite permutations of an art practice, even one of absurd proportions.

The exhibition concludes with two recent works making their US debut: Throwing Shadows, 2008–10, is a display of myriad all-black, thimble-size porcelain vessels, at once evocative of ancient funerary urns and modern studies on variation by Imi Knoebel or Allan McCollum. Meanwhile MENS SUITS, 2006–2009, stages a pint-size clothing recycle center in three phases—collecting, sorting, and re-presenting—leaving viewers with an apt metaphor for LeDray’s resourcefulness with both material and meaning.