Sculpture and Drawings

The Work of Barry Ledoux:  The Structure of Self-Doubt

The structures of Barry Ledoux first enforce a sense of a reliquary of skepticism and self-lacerating humors. The work is often humorous and has a certain erotic languid music, as it were: a syneasthetic tang that is proposed by the many linguistic fragments that act as hidden voices in his poetic. In Between Impact & Language (Fragmented) one is given a kind of cadaver exquis rendered by the persona that understands itself to be shattered, and the result, in Delaunay’s famous formulation, is shattered indeed “as the fruit-dish of Cezanne.” Sculpture here achieves a species of cloisonne, and the color shines with a dubious lack of light. The whole is precarious and restless as the antithetical movements that Meyer Shapiro admired in the Romanesque sculptures at Moissac and Souillac. This comparison with the medieval is not entirely inappropriate or far-fetched, because not only does Ledoux have a pronounced taste for medieval and early music in general, but there is a specifically medieval modernism about his whole project, which is able to include a meditation upon the skull-as-relic. His work is never illustrative of sacred texts but it includes the sense of these as being “profane illuminations” of privileged meditative momenta.

There is an intricately constructivist side to the beginnings of these pieces, and one admires the spritely dance they do in preparatory materials, where they have some of the piercing charm of Smithson’s cardboard meanders. Something both of Arp and Archipenko is indeed archly synthesized in such a dark biomorphic cadenza as Thus One Begins to Live by Poetry, whose title gives a resonant impossible assertion that is worthy of the cantankerous oscillations of this masterfully articulated “fossil” or skeleton, rather, with its emphasis on an uncanny fish. One knows the Freudian use of the “uncanny” has become all too fashionable to assert, but here are the homeliness of the figure and its spectral coloration have some of the “antithetical meanings” that the master of the canny seized in primary words. The English language yields us the most poignant symbol of this contradiction in the word “cleave,” which Ledoux seems to proposed with his unified and disjunctive pieces. The seventh level of ambiguity, as Epson suggested, is perhaps mental contradiction: is metaphysical agony. In Ledoux’s work I do not always know whether the structure contains a skull or is itself a skull, as in the strange interlacings of Strophe, another linguistic title.

There is more than admirable humor here, and there is a melancholy that never slopes into sentimentality, as in the brilliant slices of The Rotundum, where the entire brain seems menacingly offered up in orangey delectation, and the whole crowned by a dunce’s cap in the middle of such surgery. Some of this “wit” might be most aptly compared to the undissociated sensibility, so called, that Eliot seized upon years ago when he spoke of his preference for those poets, like Donne, who could solder together, as it were, science, philosophy, and sexuality. This is the synthesis I find in Ledoux’s best and strange work, as when this same sliced brain viewed by a bird’s eye perspective becomes a radiant sun or clock or golden mandala. How full and inexhaustible this well of wit is, particularly indicated by the sculptural effects Ledoux achieves in ensembles, full of materials both high and low, steel and copper, pants that sway and language that rotates: no anemic cinema here.

The most explicit reliquary in Ledoux’s work takes us into the very heart of sculptural investigations and anthropological masques. He has dedicated a portion of his work to the terrain of Shadows, in the phrase of the anthropological team of Pellizzi and Guideri. He has rigorously created masks of this theatrical skull, and I am impressed that he has escaped all cliché in dealing with what seems like the most connotatively encrusted symbol of vanitas or mortalia. It is perhaps his modest severity that gets him images that are utterly resonant, low, humble, and yet shockingly in excess of what one thought what this icon could bear, evoke, or trace. It is not for nothing one superb skull exuding copper ribbons, is called by the tremulous title, Small Deaths. Somehow, these humble objects have the status of doom one associates with the great plaster light bulb of Johns resting on its bed of subtle death: a common object reminding us that the skull was the first sculpture.

He has never forsaken his intent good draughtsmanship, and some of his best drawing is done in the service of an endless tracery of lacings, a book of Kells that also reminds one of a more carnal body that the monks might have been pointing towards in their infinities. The Drawings of Self-Doubt, No. 3, for example, is impossible to think without some sense of internal bodily states rendered by the neurophysiologist Schilder as the “internality of the body.” Thus, the excesses of Ledoux are always pointing to what Shapiro learned from Schilder: the lability of the body and its provocative parts that must be symbolized through almost private tropes. But it is exactly this untranslatable structure that becomes, paradoxically, our public possession. Thus, there is a happy exoteric sense in Ledoux’s shattered body, for example, a study with jacket and pants where the torso stands mutely in space above the lower parts, like a joke in which a mother offers her son separate towels for separate parts of his body. Something like this “separated man,” like the mocker mocked in Paul Klee, wants to emerge in much of Ledoux’s work as a democratic satire on the specific body torn apart and also, possibly healed.

In some of his greatest drawings, one ambitiously or comically titled After Leonardo, one senses the ambitious urge towards reconciliations of watery elegies and homage, just as some of his recent sculpture is no doubt an elegy without words to his father, his work and its purposive archaism gives a focus like a healing dream, like his alchemical readings. His work proposes this emotive healing and constraint of pathos, as a sculpture holds sacred texts and secular objects. These are legible shelter for the universal divine conjures: “Nothing stable except the divine,  the rest is smoke.”

But only the intransigent moderns artist can give us the smoke - one thinks of Manet’s Mallarme amid plumes of cigarette smoke - as the divine. This is part of the profane alchemy of Ledoux.

David Shapiro