The Unbelievably Small: The Art of Charles LeDray

Everything these days is super-sized, whether it’s a meal or a work of art. We’re surrounded by spectacle. Visit any New York gallery or open any contemporary art magazine and you’ll see larger-than-life work that takes a team of fabricators to build. The handmade, the small and intimate, are overlooked and devalued.

Charles LeDray installation art with men's jackets

Charles LeDray thousands of tiny hand-thrown  pots

It’s refreshing to find an artist like Charles LeDray who counters both these trends, working at a smaller-than-life scale and constructing all the work without assistance. He is known for sculptures and installations containing meticulously sewn tiny garments and hand thrown thumbnail sized pots.

Charles LeDray "Men's Suits," an art installation

It would be easy to write off the work as an elevated version of child’s play – doll sized clothing and items for a dollhouse – if it weren’t for the darker psychology manifest in his portrayal of frayed and discarded goods. In Men’s Suits LeDray has reconstructed three rooms from a thrift store, including display racks and a sorting room. At waist height he’s suspended a ceiling grid and florescent lights, forcing the viewer to bend low to see into the room. There is something voyeuristic about this pose, as if we are looking at something that should remain hidden. Ken Johnson, writing in The New York Times, describes the work this way – “Much of what makes ‘Mens Suits’ so riveting is in the attention to detail and labor-intensive determination to get everything just right. But the atmosphere of neglect and abandonment it conjures is equally compelling. The tenderness that Mr. LeDray exercises in the making of his work becomes an expression of redemptive compassion for things uncared for.”

Charles LeDray men's uniforms and suit

LeDray is particularly interested in male identity and uses clothing as a stand-in for the archetypical male. There’s the good dad, the loyal man who serves his country, the adventurer, the worker – and yet many of the representative garments are torn and stained, suggesting either a failed attempt to achieve one’s dreams or the realities imposed by the passage of time. The small scale of all the work creates an aura of vulnerability, regardless of the prestige that may be connected to the persona portrayed. Here, men are not the wielders of power but its victim.

Charles LeDray handmade uniform with tiny garments attached

Effectively using the design principles of scale and proportion, which we cover in Chapter 12 of our book “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook,” LeDray shows that big isn’t always better. Here is a great quote that was used as part of a text panel in LeDray’s exhibition “workworkworkworkwork” (it’s from the closing monologue of the movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man”) – “So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I know they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle.”

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