Hearing a distant drum beat and stumbling across the words “Are You Down?” in huge lettering atop a bright yellow background will certainly catch the attention of a wandering museum-goer. And it definitely caught ours.
The Michael Richards: Are You Down? exhibition, currently on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) until July of this year, follows a non-traditional open floor plan. The free-form installation invites a viewer to take their own path. And so we did. Behind the big “Are You Down?” welcome sign and the faint drum sound—which turns out to be an amplified Caribbean drum beat carefully packed into the trunk of a sculptural tractor installation—is a curatorial sign that reads:
"the theory: to disperse the univocality of a "Master Plan" into an aerosol of imaginary conversations and inclusionary tactics.
To bring in rather than to leave out.
To make signs.
To question the priorities of style and taste.
To anticipate change and invite alteration.
To construct a cycle of repair and discovery.
To question the limitations of vocation.
To be brought down to earth.
To make the permanent temporary.
To see the forest for the trees.
To have no end in sight.
“To restructure the approach to the museum. To allow for laboratory settings for artists and designers.”
“To provide a visible, inexpensive, short-term botanical strategy to alter the place.”
“To introduce movie-going, walking, wading, eating, reading, bird watching, relaxing, and other familiar pleasures.”
“To punctuate the site with regional, cultural, and vernacular signage.”
“To replace the forest that's been lost.”
Immediately, the viewer is disoriented. But in an enticing way. The exhibit is so open and full of space for more art. There was so much wiggle room in each exhibit space that it felt incomplete, and that was probably intentional. I like to think this open space was left for all the works Richards would have made had his life not been cut so short. Michael Richards passed away on September 11, 2001. His studio was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
After imagining what might have been, one brightly lit exhibition invites the viewer to take a look at Richard's early career (1990-1993), described by the curators of the exhibition as formative for his concept and artistic development. The coinciding wall exhibition label describes Richard's early installations as “room-size, site-specific installations” that revolve around the consequences of anti-Blackness and racial violence. Although no physical installations remain from Richard's early work, photos and images indicate the works were performative and happened in the moment. One series of photographs depicts an installation of four hanging bodies covered by a velvet red curtain—morbid and theatrical, all at the same time.
In addition to images of his early work, a 10-foot-long vitrine displays 5x7 photographs of Richards with his friend group. The display walks through a timeline of Richard’s early career alongside several artist friends, almost like a shrine. One of the photographed friends is contemporary interdisciplinary artist William Cordova, who was a dear friend of Richards. One photograph depicts the friend group, intertwined in a laughing hug—the display case beautifully demonstrates the incredible connections Richards had before his tragic, untimely death.
Along the back walls of the exhibit was a series of sketches titled Escape Plan. They were small images accompanied by poetry. It was quiet as we entered the room containing the last of his work. The only noise came from the hum of the AC unit merely meters away fromAre you Down? a sculpture depicting the dive of dozens of planes. To Richards, aviation represented liberation just as much as it did surrender, the two interpretations of flight dancing in the air with the clouds. Now, the pages carry the weight of foreshadowing, the poetry sharing space with the sketches reading like prophecies rather than parables.
Michael Richards viewed flight as both freedom and surrender. One of his last pieces, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999) was made with resin and steel. It is a self-casted mold of his body in resin and depicts him pierced by multiple miniature airplanes. It bridges this intersection of surrender and freedom. The name derives from the African and African-American folklore about Brer Fox, the story of a clever fox crafting a tar baby doll to capture Brer Rabbit. The second half comes from St. Sebastian, a figure many hold as a martyr of Christianity. An added layer of interpretation comes from the artist’s death, where he was literally hit by one of the planes on September 11, 2001. The work was in storage from 2001-2016—it’s the first time that both pieces were held in the same museum simultaneously.
As we walked up the stairs and turned around, we noticed a sign beaming above the ceiling, centered perfectly with Michael Richards’ black and yellow sign “Are You Down?” as a reminder of the difficulties viewers face to feel comfortable in a space of so much emotional creativity. A voice of reason amongst the adorned walls:
You Belong Here.
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