Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami opens retrospective of artist Michael Richard
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Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami opens retrospective of artist Michael Richard
Michael Richard, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994. Installed at Château Shatto Gallery, overlooking Downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate and Château Shatto.

MIAMI, FLA.- The Museum of Contemporary, Art North Miami is presenting the exhibition “Michael Richards: Are You Down?” ― the first museum retrospective of the work of Michael Richards, exhibiting both his extensive sculpture and drawing practice.

Of Jamaican and Costa Rican lineage, Michael Richards was born in Brooklyn in 1963, raised in Kingston, and came of age between post-independence Jamaica and post-civil rights era America. Richards used the language of metaphor to investigate racial inequity and the tension between assimilation and exclusion in his art. Flight and aviation were central themes for Richards as an exploration of freedom and escape, ascendance and descent. His artwork gestures towards both repression and reprieve from social injustices, and the simultaneous possibilities of uplift and downfall, often in the context of the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people.

In a 1997 interview, Richards stated, “I think history has always been important to me because 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. 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.”

Significant points of reference for Richards include the Tuskegee Airmen—the first African American pilots in United States military history—and the complexity of their triumphs in the face of segregation. Other important influences include cultural, religious, and ritual stories from African, African American, Jamaican, and Judeo-Christian traditions, as well as Greek mythology. Richards merged worlds in his artworks, bringing together spiritual and historical references with popular culture to conflate the themes of his practice. His recurring interest was in both the everyday and the transcendent, and how bringing them into conversation with each other opens up a plurality of representation and interpretation. Centering his own experience, Richards also used his body to cast the figures for his sculptures, which often appear as pilots, saints, or both.

Michael Richards had a close creative relationship to Miami, making the city and MOCA, a fitting location for this retrospective. From 1997–2000, Richards was an artist-in-residence at ArtCenter/South Florida (now Oolite Arts), spending three months each winter for three years making work and developing community in Miami. Richards created the sculptures Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian and Are You Down?, the exhibition’s namesake, in this studio.

“It is an honor for MOCA to host Michael Richards: Are You Down? – as Miami was one of Richards’ artistic homes,” said MOCA Executive Director Chana Budgazad Sheldon. “His largest solo exhibition during his lifetime was at Ambrosino Gallery, previously located across the street from MOCA, in 2000, so his connection to the North Miami community and our institution is undeniable.”

Tragically, Michael Richards passed away on September 11, 2001 while working in his Lower Manhattan Cultural Council World Views studio on the 92nd floor of World Trade Center, Tower One. At age 38, Richards was an emerging artist whose incisive aesthetic held immense promise to make him a leading figure in contemporary art. On view through October 2021, this retrospective also marks the 20th anniversary of September 11 with the largest ever exhibition of Richards’ work.

Michael Richards: Are You Down? takes its name from one of the last artworks Richards created during his lifetime. The retrospective features nearly all of the artwork Richards made during a prolific decade of artistic production between 1990 and 2001. The exhibition includes numerous sculptures and drawings, as well as documentation of early site-specific installations and images of no longer extant work. Several of Richards’ sculptures have been recently conserved, and are on view at MOCA North Miami for the first time since the artist’s passing.

The sonic sculpture, “Swing Lo’” (1996), is being shown posthumously for the first time. Consisting of a life-sized, rusted chariot outfitted with blue neon underglow and one wheel attached to its right side (a second wheel is purposely missing), when installed, the chariot plays dancehall music from a booming sound system. The title, “Swing Lo’,” directly references the African-American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Visually, the work traverses space and time, with allusions to Elijah’s biblical chariot, Jamaican sound systems which first appeared in the 1950s and were a significant presence throughout Richards’ upbringing in Kingston, and lowrider and custom car culture omnipresent throughout Miami beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. Artists william cordova and Luis Gispert, both friends and contemporaries of Richards, lead the restoration of this work.

Also on view is documentation, including video and photographs of Richards in his Miami studio, historic catalogs, exhibition invitations, and remembrances from friends and curators—including Thelma Golden, Franklin Sirmans, Gean Moreno, william cordova, Christine Y. Kim, Luis Gispert, and many more.

Michael Richards: Are You Down? has been many years in the making, with Fialho and Levin beginning to engage with Richards’ body of work in 2016, starting with a visit to Richards’ cousin Dawn Dale’s garage in upstate New York. The majority of Richards’ artworks were stored in unopened boxes for the 15 years since his passing. As Richards had little online presence, Fialho and Levin have conducted extensive interpersonal and analog research, which has included more than 100 conversations with Richards’ communities of friends and colleagues as well as site-visits to institutions such as the Studio Museum in Harlem (NY), the Bronx Museum of the Arts (NY), ArtCenter/ South Florida (now Oolite Arts, FL), Franconia Sculpture Park (MN), the Corcoran Gallery of Art (DC), and more.

“It feels fitting for Michael Richards: Are You Down? to be mounted in Miami and at MOCA North Miami, as an artistic homecoming for Richards’ art and legacy,” say curators Alex Fialho and Melissa Levin, “With incisive and poetic form, Richards’ artwork continues to resonate over two decades after its creation. Though Richards’ work is certainly of its time in the 1990s, it simultaneously speaks poetically and provocatively to our contemporary moment.” Collaborators since 2014, Fialho is an art historian, curator and graduate student in Yale University’s Combined Ph.D. program in the History of Art and African American Studies; Levin is an arts administrator and curator with nearly 20 years of experience creating innovative resources for artists and building progressive programs and institutions.

Richards’ first monograph with newly commissioned writing including an essay by MacArthur Fellow and Miami-based author Edwidge Danticat will be co-published with New York Consolidated on the occasion of the exhibition.

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