Not for the first time, I find I have been introduced to a body of knowledge and works through the intercession of Barry Ledoux and his sculpture. This is relevant because, in a way, it doubly validates Ledoux’s sculptural mission. He has always been an artist who works slowly, deliberately, with time out for study, research, and contemplation. “I want to arrive at ideas through the work,” he has said, with emphasis on the work over the ideas. Nevertheless, as he puts it, “an esoteric body of knowledge interests me.” Acquainting oneself with his broad-ranging research has a binary effect: it throws his work into a new light and allows the work to act as a guide to new areas of thought.
Ledoux recently returned from the Pilchuck Glass School with assorted smoky blown-glass forms that bear some resemblance to beakers, vessels, and retorts, with no ends up. During a residency at Pilchuck, he became especially interested in a new material – solid graphite – which is used in glass casting. Given all this, it might come as no surprise to learn that one of the esoteric bodies of knowledge in which Ledoux is interested is alchemy. Here is an artist who has employed materials including lead, copper, stained glass, blown glass, sheet mica, slate, graphite, salt, bells, insects, fire, water, and assorted fluorescent and phosphorescent pigments in his work over a period of some 20 years. His imagery has included external body parts, internal organs, clothing, skulls, planets, vessel shapes, spears, and – not least – words. Many of these elements were in his work quite some time before his study of alchemy.
Sculpture and alchemy can be seen in many ways as analogous, and Ledoux is not alone among contemporary sculptors in his interest in the subject. C. G. Jung, the psychologist and the 20th century’s great interpreter and documentarian of alchemy, wrote of “the alchemist’s hope of conjuring out of matter the philosophical gold”* – a worthy goal for a sculptor, as well. “Not for nothing,” said Jung, “did alchemy style itself an ‘art,’ feeling – and rightly – that it was concerned with creative processes than can be truly grasped only by experience, though intellect may give them a name.”
Certainly in an era when the intrinsic qualities of materials and the entire process of working with them has been of utmost importance, the sculptor-as-alchemist metaphor holds water, as it were. The alchemist’s focus on transforming one kind of matter into another – a more refined and philosophical form – through human labor and intervention, creating the “opus,” is similar to the sculptor’s project. Ledoux indeed speaks of this goal as his own. The small matter that the sculptor has generally had greater success (Jung repeatedly stresses the paucity of evidence of alchemy ever producing the desired results, except psychically) is another matter. It may account for the secrecy and mystery -- the “hermeticism,” or reliance on unseen helpers – that historically surrounded alchemy. The mystery itself is what is often honored in latter-day nods to this art, with its roots in philosophy and religion. What sets Ledoux apart is the result, the sculptures themselves.
“Nothing but the divine is stable; everything else is smoke,” reads the Latin phrase that spirals through Opus Alchymicum: First Lesson on Darkness (1988-91), a large free-standing sculpture that was Ledoux’s first to include stained glass among its elements. The dark blue, leaded-glass forms describe human legs and buttocks, and perhaps a heart. The scaffolding on which these parts -- as well as a diaphanous pair of pants and ribbons of sheet copper, among other things – are hung is a sort of splayed cross clad in lead and glass. The phrase and aspects of the imagery are taken from a Mantegna painting depicting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Ledoux, who spent 12 years as a Catholic altar boy in his native Mamou, Louisiana, is no stranger to the seductions of religious glitz and theatrics, specifically to what he calls “Cajun high baroque.”
From an early age, Ledoux studied music, thinking that this might become his metier. That didn’t happen, but music – and especially song – has been another important strain in his art-making. An earlier body of work was infused with the spirit of the Elizabethan composer and poet John Dowland, whose elegiac words made their way into Ledoux’s stark and poignant empty lead suits in the 1980s. There was a religious intensity to that series of work, as well, which – by Minimal standards – was painfully expressive.
After a period of creative doubt brought on by a sojourn at the American Academy in Rome, Ledoux began a series of drawings actually called “Drawings of Self-Doubt.” Through curved-paper shapes, color, and ample use of linearity, Ledoux seems to have gotten back in touch with the sensuality, tactility, and decorativeness of his boyhood surroundings. Though his colors had generally been high-pitched, not to say shrill, now his forms became expressive not simply in content but in their shapes and means. “I became aware of the artist as an adult. I felt. I found forms. The forms told me to look at myself.”
Now he also began his study of alchemy, largely through the teachings of the psychologist Jung. Always an artist to carefully, thoroughly, and slowly integrate and assimilate ideas and other art forms, Ledoux’s passions are never fleeting or passing. They take time for him to develop and work out, and they take time on the part of his interpreters and enthusiasts to understand. Not that the sculptures and drawings shrink from exposure. To the contrary, their sometimes shameless abandon is what has made their grounding in almost medieval concepts and imagery particularly ripe. There is a richness in allusion and a consistency in philosophy that make one want to follow the story to its conclusion. In alchemy – the not-exactly profane but perhaps shadow, or flip, side of early Christianity – Ledoux has found a rich vein of ideas for a sculptor in these times.
Ledoux comes from Cajun country, some 300 miles southwest of New Orleans, a flat land of cotton, rice, soybeans, and crawfish boils. As he puts it, using his family name, “The Sonniers just came out of the woods one day” and took up farming. As boys, he and his brother, Keith, came under the tutelage of an influential mentor -- Keith in art and Barry (who later took his mother’s maiden name to differentiate himself from his brother) initially in music. Keith is almost ten years Barry’s senior and preceded him to the East, settling in New York.
When Ledoux came East, he also began to lean toward visual art. His brother’s peers became his employers and role models, among them Nancy Graves – for whom Ledoux worked as an assistant -- and Sonnier’s then-wife Jackie Winsor, with whom he formed a strong bond. From Winsor, he says, he picked up a “sense of scale, a work ethic, a physical involvement with how things got built.” As far as his work’s connection to that of Sonnier, Ledoux calls it “just genes.” He continues: “Neither of us works with mass; color is indispensable; and there’s a sense of line.” All that perhaps French-, perhaps Catholic-inspired attention to color, line, the more sensuous, even “feminine,” aspects of visual culture.
Ledoux’s lead suits of the 1980s – with their clear silhouettes, their harsh color, and their primal words -- constituted a powerful series of sculpture. But the subsequent period of self-doubt brought on by his stay in Rome at the very end of the 1980s may have signified his real declaration of independence, a decision to forge his own way generationally as well as personally. The work that has followed is in a category of its own, though not really divorced from his strong and original earlier voice.
The multidimensional cut-out drawings of the “Self-Doubt” series verge on the state of wall sculptures, becoming – for instance, in the mixed-media example of Solve and Coagula (for Paracelsus) (1989-1990) -- actual multimedia sculptures, mixing wire drawing in space with curvilinear paper forms. With The Rotundum and The Rotundum: Fire, Speech, Breath (both 1990-1992), the combination of skull form and brain texture makes itself felt in free-standing sculptures made from multiple templates. Fluorescent pigment adds a deliberately garish note.
Next came Strophe, a skull limned in soldered copper tubing. Here, the color elements are internalized, with a small blue-stained-glass form and an orange-painted copper form tucked within the copper-tube mesh. More skulls appear, to suggestive effect, in the helmet-like blue-leaded-glass Small Deaths (1993-94), with its copper strips and letters spelling the word “Love,” and in Elegy (1996-97), in which a leaded-slate skull is embedded in a sphere of copper tubing. The soldering and the leading in these various pieces complement one another, graphically signifying the transformation of one kind of matter into another – of hard into soft into hard again.
Leaded glass is also the material of Two Bodies (1994), an intimate piece that combines male and female body parts. Ledoux was a forerunner in the current interest in gender and body issues, initially and often noted in the work of such artists as Kiki Smith, Robert Gober, Rona Pondick, and younger adherents; he has been using psychologically suggestive and probing body imagery since the early 1980s.
Then there is the strange trademark form that began with Mercurius, a piece made from balsa wood as a maquette for an unrealized blown-glass version. This piece, named after one of alchemy’s base elements, is indeed a quicksilver form, slipping as it does from one plane and one plane of reference to another . Looking one moment like connected pig bladders, another like vessels or biomorphic growths, it changes form according to its material. And it already exists in various materials. The transparent and blue leaded-glass version shines like – well – glass, or a “bijou,” as Ledoux calls it in his Cajun argot. Another version, made of sheet mica, has a smoky look. Its construction suggests a mutant Naum Gabo structure, with volume suggested in its manner of building from the inside out.
Idiosyncrasy is the hallmark of all of this work. Jung said, “Alchemists are, in fact, decided solitaries; each has his say in his own way.” A truer word could not be said of Ledoux. It begins with his drawings; but brought to fruition in fully three dimensions, his fecund formal vocabulary goes, as he puts it, “to an unconscious place.” Whether or not this place is “collective” in a strict sense, it speaks to us on the level of truths held in common – always rendered in the unique forms that result from Ledoux’s singular experience, sensibility, and artistic intervention.
*All quotations from C. G. Jung taken from C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, translated by R. F. C. Hull. (Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press) Princeton, New Jersey, second edition, 1968.