Critics’ Picks

Michael Richards, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo (detail), 1994, resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, dimensions variable.


Michael Richards

Stanford Art Gallery
419 Lasuen Mall
January 22–March 24

Symbolism rooted in the body and flight dominates this arresting exhibition of Michael Richards’s work, mostly from the 1990s. Jets puncture a cast of the artist, become entangled in barbed wire, or plummet toward a bull’s-eye in striking, representational sculptures. Airplanes are metaphoric vehicles for an escape from a racist society, but their destructive capacities are also apparent. Richards was killed on September 11, 2001, after spending the night in his studio in the World Trade Center, and his artwork—which can be seen as either prescient or eerily coincidental in light of this biographical fact—risks being overshadowed by the circumstances of his untimely death.

Hidden in storage for fifteen years, the works on view address issues that are at the vanguard of contemporary activism, and perhaps that is where the real prescience lies. The Tuskegee airmen are a recurring motif in works such as the multivalent Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, 1999—a monumental bronze sculpture of a pilot in a Tuskegee uniform, pierced by eighteen toy-size planes, that references not only the all–African American aviation unit during World War II, but also the reprehensible syphilis experiment. A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, consists of five pedestals supporting plaster busts with photo transfers of images of acts of police brutality against black people. Four have plaques that read “When I was young I wanted to be a policeman,” a poignantly naive sentiment. Created almost two decades before the Black Lives Matter movement began, this work still resonates.

Richards’s “Escape Plan” series, 1996–2000, is more introspective than his forceful sculptures. In many of the exquisitely detailed pencil drawings, quotidian objects are accompanied by calligraphic texts that are equal parts profound and droll: feathers collected to form a ladder, a spoon to carve out a hole, shoes to build a bridge. Some seek to subvert racist stereotypes, and all speak to the artist’s desire to find a way out of the social hierarchies that remain oppressive today.