BOSTON — Miniatures have mesmerized us for centuries. Doll houses, ship models, Matchbox Cars, toy dogs, Mini Coopers, nanotechnology.
But why do we love these tiny little things?
“There are a lot of reasons why things that are tiny are so fascinating to us,” mused Randi Hopkins, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA). “Part of the marvel has to do with how they challenge our own expected relationship to these things, as if we are ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ ”
Now Hopkins and the ICA are giving visitors a chance to “play Alice” through a new exhibition of tiny sculptures by internationally known artist Charles LeDray.
LeDray has spent his career making wee versions of ordinary objects — flip-flops, children’s toys, clothing, a model of the solar system. The sculptures are highly intricate and bursting with wonder. The artist crafts each one entirely by hand.
His life-long obsession with size and painstaking detail is captured by the title of the ICA’s 25-year retrospective, “Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork. ”
One of the installations, “Throwing Shadows,” features more than 3,000 Lilliputian black porcelain pots. Another piece displays a diminutive pair of men’s underwear laid delicately on a background of bright blue silk. “Village People” is a line-up of 21 tiny men’s hats that are too small even for a baby’s head. Then there’s “Mens Suits.”
Have you ever fantasized about looming over something smaller than yourself, kind of like Godzilla gazing down on Tokyo? Well, “Mens Suits” might be your chance to experience that sensation in real life.
That’s because “Mens Suits” is a pint-sized second-hand clothing shop in a human-sized art gallery. The little store’s three rooms are only about about shin-high. The colorful, textured garments — little button down shirts and jackets suspended from minute hangers — might fit a Ken doll, or maybe G.I. Joe.
The suits evoke the memories and associations we have with the beloved, well-worn fabrics we wear day in, day out, close against our skin. But again, they’re so small, displayed on racks right up against the miniature used clothing of imagined strangers.
Seeing the work from above creates a curious response in the viewer, as curator Hopkins explained it. “Suddenly towering over things gives a strange new position in relation to them, so that we can scrutinize them and imagine exerting a new kind of control over them,” Hopkins said.
Human perception is “marvelously elastic,” Hopkins continued, “without hardly being conscious of it, we are very quick to adapt our sense of scale to anything we are looking at.”
And that’s the fun of it reflecting on the “power of tiny,” as Hopkins puts it. “(Little things) seemingly harmless in scale activate our imagination in an immediate way we know from childhood, drawing us in,” Hopkins said.
But it should be pointed out that artist LeDray’s vast body of work is too rich with humanity to be viewed as simply adorable. It conjures the passing of time, and even our own identities.
Also, there’s a touch of the macabre in LeDray’s aesthetic that perhaps might temper viewers from gushing too wistfully over his lovely little works. Some of his miniature sculptures are made of hand-carved human bone. A ladder, a chair, a door — and even that little model of the solar system.
LeDray’s previous exhibitions have inspired awe at the ICA Philadelphia and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. LeDray’s work can also be found in collections at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork” runs from July 16-October 17 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Then it heads to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.