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| Art |

Twenty Years After His Death, Michael Richards' Work Remains as Relevant as Ever

A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994
A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994
Photo by Etienne Frossard
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“When I was young I wanted to be a policeman,” reads the inscription under a bust of a man’s head and neck. Look closer at the face of the bust, and the images of police officers in full riot gear, weapons raised, come into view.

Now, take in the third bust in this row of five. Like a bullet wound between the eyes or a sight seared into one’s memory, the image of Rodney King’s swollen, beaten face is photo-transferred onto the figure's forehead. The entire head and neck rotate endlessly — never pausing, never resting — on a motorized metal arm affixed to a pedestal that reads, “A loss of faith brings vertigo.”

The 1994 work from Afro-Caribbean artist Michael Richards was a direct response to the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers in March 1991. Still, the issues at the core of the sculpture remain a contemporary ill. A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo is one of 12 sculptures and 25 drawings comprising the retrospective exhibition “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” which opens Wednesday, April 21, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MOCA).

“We understand this work to be Michael thinking through his aspirational desire toward ideas of civic responsibility and community safety, but as the central plaque reads and the work is titled, ‘A loss of faith brings vertigo.’ As a result of racially motivated police violence, there’s a loss of that aspiration and faith,” says Alex Fialho, the exhibition's co-curator. “Richards’ work powerfully speaks to a lot of the questions that our society is grappling with at this moment.”

An art historian, curator, and graduate student, Fialho worked with arts administrator and curator Melissa Levin to assemble the largest exhibition of Richards’ art to date.

“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” marks the first showing of Richards’ work since his death on September 11, 2001, while working in his studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. Richards’ sculptures and drawings communicate ideas of racial inequity, police violence, and diasporic identity — issues that resonate all the more amid the nation’s current sociopolitical climate.

“If you examine the past, you can also read the symptoms of what is prevalent now in terms of racial associations and the relationships of power present in our society today,” Richards said in a 1997 interview with the Bronx Museum of the Arts. “History is interesting in terms of how we mythologize it, how we accept history or interpretations of history as fact, and whose interpretation it is. In many ways, my history is so different from the official white versions.”

Levin and Fialho’s search for Richards’ history and body of work led them to a garage in upstate New York where Richards’ cousin, Dawn Dale, had carefully kept box upon box of Richards’ drawings and sculptures. After opening the boxes to find disassembled parts made of wood, resin, and feathers, the pair visited museums where Richards created, traveled to Richards’ site-specific installations in places like Franconia, Minnesota, and obtained documentation showing how the parts formed a whole. After years of research, Levin and Fialho were able to assemble and display Richards’ sculptures as the artist intended.

“The research process had to be really analog. We tried to take as many cues as we could from how Michael pursued his artistic process, how he built community and how he created his artwork,” Levin says. “We quickly learned that talking to people who knew Michael was going to be the best way to learn more about his artistic process. He had such a wide community and was such a beloved person and artist.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1963 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Richards was a contemporary of Kerry James Marshall and Dread Scott and known for his use of metaphor to highlight racial inequities and the tension minorities face in the liminal space between assimilation and exclusion. The artist was well on his way to becoming a leading figure in contemporary art when he died at age 38.

Michael Richards in Miami Beach, 1999
Michael Richards in Miami Beach, 1999
Photo by Keith Holmes

“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” marks a Miami homecoming for the artist’s work, says MOCA executive director Chana Budgazad Sheldon. The largest solo exhibition of Richards’ lifetime was at the Ambrosino Gallery, previously located across the street from where the museum stands today. During Richards’ residency at the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts at ArtCenter/South Florida (now Oolite Arts), he created his best-known sculpture, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, as well as the sculpture that lends its name to the exhibition.

“Michael Richards had a close creative relationship to Miami and North Miami specifically, making MOCA North Miami a fitting location for his first museum retrospective. He spent three months each winter for three years making art in Miami,” Sheldon notes. “MOCA North Miami is at the center of Miami’s diverse Caribbean and Hispanic community, and we embrace the opportunity to engage diverse audiences and communities through our exhibitions.”

Many of Richards’ works employ the imagery of aviation and flight to explore possibilities of both escape and ascendance. In the drawing series “Escape Plan” and elsewhere, Richards utilizes the images of the Tuskegee Airmen, Black pilots who flew during World War II, to explore “the possibilities and pitfalls of escape as they relate to racial stereotype,” Fialho says.

“The airmen became so central to him in that they were the first African-American pilots in U.S. military history. They flew twice as many missions as their white counterparts but had to be in segregated barracks,” Fialho explains. “He was thinking about these ideals of democracy and freedom and the contradictions involved in the pursuit of these ideals.”

To Richards, flight could also mean freedom — from fear, from racism, from prejudice. Several of his sculptures feature arms, feathers, and wings — clear references to a higher plane, be it celestial or cerebral.

“It’s about a societal escape,” Richards told the Bronx Museum of the Arts in 1997, “trying to transcend the societal boundaries that we set up as an invisible trap around us.”

MOCA will host a series of public programs that connect Richards’ unique voice to the issues facing America today. On April 28, Fialho and Levin will host a curator tour of the exhibit. On July 9, "Conversations at MOCA: Michael Richards and the Whitney Independent Study Program with Renee Cox, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Dread Scott" will focus on a formative moment in Richards' artistic practice and his inseparable ties to a group of Black artists emerging in the 1990s.

Sheldon says she hopes these programs, which will also feature a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, will engage and educate audiences in Miami and beyond with the work of a man she describes as an “inspiring and thoughtful artist.

“I hope the exhibition inspires important conversations about racial injustices, police brutality, anti-Blackness, segregation, diasporic identity, religious beliefs, and more,” Sheldon adds. “Though much of Richards’ work was created in the 1990s, it simultaneously speaks poetically and provocatively to our contemporary moment.”

Even as the finishing touches were being applied to the Richards exhibit, Daunte Wright, a young Black man, was shot to death by a white police officer not far from the courtroom where former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin is standing trial for the killing of George Floyd, a Black man whose neck Chauvin — who is white — knelt on for more than nine minutes last spring.

The four L.A. police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted despite amateur camera footage that documented them taking turns delivering baton blows to his body. That violence occurred a little over a decade after the death of Arthur Lee McDuffie at the hands of Miami-Dade police officers in 1979.

And so the news cycle continues to play variations on the same theme. And the central bust of Richards’ “A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo” spins on and on.

“Michael Richards: Are You Down?” Wednesday, April 21, through October 10, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami; 305-893-6211; mocanomi.org. Tickets cost $10 via mocanomi.org.

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