The effort that goes into contemporary art can be both subtle and obvious. Some conceptual artists may spend weeks or months contemplating art theory and simply thinking before creating the actual piece. Often the resulting artwork has an air of casualness, as if it had been thrown together. Other contemporary artists labor endlessly on their pieces, and the sheer physicality of their art is abundantly clear.
Two shows on view in South Florida clearly fall into the second category. Though Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art and Nathan Sawaya: The Art of the Brick could not be more different, both entail serious physical labor. LeDray is somber and obsessive (he spent three years creating an installation of tiny men’s clothes), bringing to bear the uncomfortable psychic baggage of a true artist. Sawaya is light and family-friendly, a commercial artist who can do nifty things with Lego bricks.
Sawaya’s LEGO creations, incorporating some 500,000 bricks, have become something of a summer ritual at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood; the same show, more or less, was hosted by the museum in 2008 and 2010. A former New York attorney, Sawaya returned to his childhood passion — he made a life-size LEGO dog at the age of 10 — and changed his life in a big way: He has appeared on The Colbert Report, Late Night with David Letterman, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Jeopardy!.
This year’s show entails more than 30 pieces: Kiss, two red torsos locked in an embrace; Rushmore, the iconic monument rendered in sort-of-gravitas gray. Yel low, one of Sawaya’s signature creations, depicts a man pulling apart his chest and revealing LEGO innards. LEGO creations have an interesting shades-of-Tron quality, and it’s fun to see the technical possibilities of the bricks — as with Gray, a man’s face clawing out of a gray wall.
There are some high-art influences at work in Sawaya’s pieces, including Robert Longo’s paintings of executives falling off skyscrapers, Keith Haring’s pop portraits and Claes Oldenburg’s giant-sized sculptures of ordinary objects like flashlights. But the work is best when it doesn’t try too hard: Peace by Pieces, an enormous and crumbling Peace sign, is a tad overreaching. That said, pop LEGO bricks are perfect building blocks for glorifying pop culture: The LEGO skateboard with skull imagery is truly cool.
On an obvious level, the tiny, handcrafted clothes in Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art would make good fodder for a Mini-Me punch line in an Austin Powers movie, but LeDray is dead serious, a hard worker and a true artist. Born in Seattle in 1960, he had no formal art training: Early on, he took a job as a security guard at Seattle Art Museum, and in New York, he became an art handler at the Jack Tilton gallery. He got his first break with a group show at the Tilton gallery, proclaiming at one juncture, “There are no ordinary objects. All things have potential.”
The installation workworkworkwork (1991), an elaborate accumulation of clothes, books and shoes, was first exhibited on the sidewalk in Cooper Square. In 2009, LeDray unveiled Men’s Suits at The Fire Station in London, an installation that precisely recreates, in tiny scale, a sad used-clothing store in some grim anywhere-world mall. (The monumental Men’s Suits, three thematically-linked installations arrayed in a triangular formulation throughout a darkened gallery, makes up most of the new Bass exhibition.)
In 2010, LeDray’s major retrospective, workworkworkwork, originated at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and went on to the Whitney Museum of American Art. But Steven Holmes, adjunct curator of art at the Bass, has chosen only four art works for Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art, a circumstance that gives an added punch – and breathing room — to the exhibition in the upstairs galleries.
The show begins with Wheat, 2000, a recreation of a wheat stalk, made of human bone and reverently set in a display case. To the left is Jewelry Window, 2002, a group of handcrafted jewelry-display busts, sans jewelry, neatly arrayed in a lighted glass case in a darkened hallway.
Around the corner is Cricket Cage, 2002, an exquisite cage made of human bone. This 17-inch tall piece is the prelude to the spooky Men’s Suits. Each of the three installations that make up Men’s Suits is framed by a square of ballad-of-the-sad-thrift-store linoleum on the floor and an overhanging bank of florescent lights hung about five feet above. The bleak overhead lighting makes each piece look like it’s being interrogated.
The first installation consists of racks of men’s clothes — Hawaiian shirts, multi-colored polos in glossy fabrics — rendered in sizes that would suit a baby. (The glass tops of all the clothing racks are dirty and sad, just like real thrift stores.)
The second installation, also set between grim linoleum and florescent lights, consists of an assortment of tacky ties, fanned out on a round table, and a tiny suit jacket draped on a chopped-down tailor’s dummy.
The final tableau is the largest and saddest in the show: clothes hung next to empty hangers, draped on ladders and ironing boards and stuffed into bags.
Men’s Suits is a meditation on mortality, waste, dreams that are dashed amid the grand hopefulness of buying new clothes, and a million other longings in this short-order world. This is what contemporary art should be, a kind of melancholic poetry that lingers long after the show is over.