Thursday, February 15, 2007

Richard Cleaver: Family Fictions Review

Katherine Knight

On the third floor of the AU museum there is in exhibit of embellished ceramic sculptures by Richard Cleaver entitled “Family Fictions”. The work deals with the repression of certain truths and desires in a rich style evocative of religious reliquaries and icons. The sculptures are complex and extraordinarily detailed, and invite you to study them carefully for clues to their meaning. Some clues are obvious. Most pieces have drawers, hidden compartments, or hinged heads that reveal truths about their subjects. For example Dreamer, which depicts a series of underwear-clad adolescents holding smaller versions of themselves standing atop a larger head whose retractable tongue reveals two men in a tender embrace, is clearly addressing anxieties about being openly gay. Other clues are more difficult to pin down. What’s with the heterosexual couple represented on the back? Or the tongue of fire burning atop the upper figure’s head? I decided to attend the Artist’s talk in hopes that Mr. Cleaver would explain some of these obscure references to me. Little did I suspect the web of concealment I was about to fall into.

It is always gratifying to learn that you were right about something. Many of Cleaver’s more personal pieces indeed deal with the experience of growing up gay in a ‘repressed’ and slightly ‘depressed’ middle-class Catholic family. He admits that the work, with its obsessive attention to detail, has always functioned as a sort of therapy. He also admits that he is unaware of the significance of many of his references, as he relies heavily on dreams and day-dreams for material. This leaves the viewer free to speculate on the significance of many stream-of-conscious details.

What interested me most; however, was not the way he dealt with the struggles he faced growing up, but the way he dealt with his family as a whole. In one such piece, Family Fiction- Arcadia 1, Cleaver shows us his parents in a coffin-like box, surrounded by all the things that consumed their adult lives: their children, their house, their smoking habits, their marriage, etc. Both the small house and the sculpture as a whole are being enveloped by gilded flames inspired, Cleaver admitted, by a mortgage-burning party hosted by his parents years ago. “I can say this because my mother isn’t here,’ he was quick to add.

In a second piece entitled Mother’s Life, Cleaver again depicts his mother in an uncomfortably cramped space, surrounded, or perhaps guarded by her twin sons, and supported by a frieze of clothespins; a symbol of her domestic drudgery. (Cleaver himself appears in the piece as a small gilded icon.) A similar piece, Spring Mother, which claims to deal with the plantation past of the land now partially occupied by his studio, shows a black woman who is literally enslaved by the children she cares for; twin girls this time.

Similar examples abound: Mother’s Tale deals with the discovery, at a friend’s funeral, that this friend was not the British ballerina she had always claimed to be. Cleaver made a point to add that the woman in question looked nothing like the woman depicted in the sculpture. Mars, God of War deals with the current war in Iraq, yet the soldiers wear uniforms from WWI. When asked about this decision Cleaver replied that he just liked the WWI uniforms better.

I got the feeling from Cleaver’s talk that he is completely unaware of the irony. It’s as though he’s unwilling or unable to depict anything that will hurt, embarrass, or step on any toes, and therefore nearly every piece is at least twice removed from his actual message.(The exceptions seem to be Swim Team and Hair Shirt, which deal with his personal experiences in high school, and are fairly straightforward.) He addresses repression with repression (the hidden compartments), and then represses it again (disguising the subject, addressing one issue through another, obfuscating the imagery, etc). Far from being pathetic, it’s actually quite touching to witness Cleaver’s struggle to work through complicated personal relationships in a manner that is entirely considerate and gentle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful discussion of Richard Cleaver's work. You caught the nuance and ambiguity that gives his work such resonance - Jack