by Sheryl Nonnenberg
When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, his work could have easily fallen into obscurity had it not been for the tireless devotion of his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh. Thanks to her methodical marketing of his paintings and letters to galleries and museums, van Gogh has become a household name, both for the beauty of his artwork and his sad, turbulent life. One might make a similar comparison to the work of Michael Richards, whose sculptures and drawings are now on display at the Stanford Art Gallery.
"Michael Richards: Winged" (on view until March 24) is a somber tribute to a young artist whose life ended too soon but who left behind a powerful and important body of work that is as relevant today as it was in 2001.
At that time, Richards (born in 1963) was an emerging artist, just on the cusp of being discovered by the all-important New York art scene. He had taken part in the Studio Museum in Harlem Artist in Residence Program as well as a residency at the Bronx Museum. His work had been displayed at Francis Nauman Fine Art and he was active in the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He was working in the LMCC World Views Studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center when the planes struck on Sept. 11. He, along with thousands of others, perished that day
Flash forward to 2016, when Stanford curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin were researching an exhibition about the LMCC residency program and became aware of Richards' work. They found out that his estate, which included a substantial volume of his artistic output, was in the care of his cousin who lived in upstate New York. Embarking on a sort of "forensic curating," they visited the cousin and found boxes of art and documentation stored in a garage. According to the exhibition catalog, the cousin, Dawn Dale, stated that she held on to the archive, knowing that his work would be seen again.
"He wanted to say something to the world, but he's still saying it. His work is saying it for him."
What Richards had to say was remarkably prescient and sadly ironic. On view in the center of the gallery is his best-known sculpture, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999). Cast from his own body, the gold resin figure is clad in the uniform of a Tuskegee Airman. The simple read on the piece might be that the artist was honoring the famed African-American pilots who fought so valiantly in World War II. But the figure is under attack, pierced by small airplanes, a reference to the martyrdom of the arrow-pierced St. Sebastian and the fact that, although the black airmen were recognized for their bravery in the air, once back on land they faced exclusion and segregation.
In a statement about his work, Richards wrote that his art, "allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms."
Needless to say, the piece also conjures up feelings of eeriness, given the circumstances of the artist's death.
A religious reference is also found in Air Fall I (His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he is watching me) from 1998. A large circular disc installed on the ceiling is the base for 50 small, suspended airplanes that nosedive towards the floor. The disc and planes are covered in black hair, a material often used by Richards as a metaphor for the standard of "how people judge me for my hair." While it might, at first, be perceived as dark symbolism of death and destruction, a circular mirror on the floor reflects the planes and their flight path back upward. Just as in the familiar hymn, there is faith and hope in a greater, redemptive power.
While the idea of flight is dominant in his sculptural work, Richards' drawings reveal his interest in the idea of transcending the bonds and boundaries of life. Gathered from various museum collections, the series "Escape Plan" reveals that the artist was a careful draftsman and a poet. Images of burning buildings and parachutes are accompanied by thoughtful handwritten notations that address feelings of anxiety and dread. The last in the series, however, reflects the artist's sense of humor, as he drew the ultimate escape plan, a (winning) lottery ticket.
Fialho, himself an alumnus of Stanford's art history program, acknowledged that undergraduates exist in the "Stanford University bubble" and, to them, the events of 9/11 may seem distant.
Both curators feel, however, that the message of Michael Richards' art is timely and, perhaps sadly, just as reflective of society today as it was during his lifetime. Their catalog essay states, "Materially and conceptually, Richards used the language of metaphor to investigate racial inequality and the tension between assimilation and exclusion in his art. Aviation, flight and escape were central themes of Richards' work, gesturing towards both repression and reprieve from social injustices, and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historical and ongoing oppression of black people."
The exhibition ends with insight into the artist himself. A wall of testimonials from artists, curators, gallery and museum directors reveal that Richards was an intelligent, talented and well-loved figure. Among many glowing tributes is a touching comment from a fellow artist, Sam Seawright, who wrote, "It's devastatingly sad poetry that he was in the studio, giving everything he had to his art, on the morning of 9/11."
Thanks to the efforts of Fialho, Levin and the Stanford Department of Art and Art History, the work — and life — of Michael Richards will not be forgotten.
What: "Michael Richards: Winged."
Where: Stanford Art Gallery, 419 Lasuen Mall, Stanford.
When: Through March 24; Tuesday-Sunday noon-6 p.m.
Info: Go to art.stanford.edu/exhibitions/michael-richards-winged.