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By John Seven, North Adams Transcript
Posted: 08/24/2012 01:43:09 AM EDT

NORTH ADAMS -- Richard Criddle is well-known as the chief fabricator at Mass MoCA, a job that casts him as a master problem solver, where he is expected to figure out realistic ways to accomplish the impossible. A new art show reveals these as the same skills that Criddle brings to his own work as a sculptor.

Criddle's show, "Compendium," opens at Gallery 51 on Thursday, Aug. 30 , featuring sculptures and drawings by the artist, as well as a documentary film about him by his son, Jack Criddle.

Criddle's sculptures are a mix of materials that come together through his hands, and memories that flow through his brain -- bronze, steel, copper, plastic, aluminum, wood, fur, bone and much more are all bound together as three-dimensional representations of his psyche and world views.

"It's a mix of me finding things, fabricating things, cutting things, tailoring things, putting things together -- it's a collage," Criddle said.

Criddle's sculptures are part self-investigation and biography, part historical investigation and social commentary and part engineering experimentation, all in the service of fashioning bizarre creatures of unexpected materials.

In one piece that speaks to his larger body of work, Criddle combined parts of a plastic toy horse and a store mannequin with a fur coat, a translucent ladder that Criddle fashioned himself with huge bones used for dog chews as steps, to create a grotesquerie that just might make you wonder what's going on in his head.

"I set up this huge propane torch and a grill outside and I had to cook all the remaining meat off and drip the fat off these bones," he said. "Then I had to paint them and shellac them and drill them and pin them into this bullet-proof Lexan. This isn't just your off-the-shelf Plexiglas, this is bullet-proof Lexan leftover, the off-cuts leftover from supporting Nari Ward's boat."

But that's just what it is in front of your eyes. What led to this monster in Criddle's studio goes back decades to his years in art school in his native England, when a working-class boy found himself hanging around the aristocracy. Simply put, the idea of taxidermy and a vulgar rich woman wearing a fur coat add up to the same thing to Criddle, but that statement doesn't do justice to the story that lurks behind the alarming image that he presents, which is as much real autobiography as imaginary nightmare.

"Art schools in London were definitely a finishing school for the rich, particularly the debutantes, the young ladies who would come to art school rather than go to Swiss finishing school in Geneva," Criddle said. "If you got invited out to the country to visit mummy and daddy, if you got your knees under the table with British aristocracy, one of the questions they would ask you was, ‘Oh, darling, do you hunt?' Or, better still, ‘Darling, do you ride?' Ride? I ride a bike."

"I came from a working-class background and I'm going to art school and I'm mixing with the offspring of the aristocracy, and going to stay up in Inverness. This is weird. They filled their houses with, I'd never seen so much taxidermy. Stag's heads coming out of the walls, stuffed foxes, they seemed to like to stuff everything."

Criddle came over from England with his wife and family in the 1990s. An early encounter with Joe Thompson cemented his position at the museum even before the museum existed, but also changed his life and work in ways he hadn't expected. It wasn't in the plan to immigrate to America, and it wasn't in his trajectory to do the kind of sculpture he is now well-known for. In England, he did a lot of bronze casting, creating his own work and teaching it, and that was at the center of his creativity. The loss of access to a foundry changed everything.

"I couldn't make art without pouring molting metal," said Criddle. "I certainly was an eclectic sort of sculptor, but more often than not, I would have taken molds of things and taken the various found objects and cast them into another material."

"For a long time, I was lumbered, my cross to bear was the craft of bronze casting. If you don't have the convenience of either a commercial foundry, where they put up with you, or run a college foundry, you're working with what you've got here, which is welding gear, and a band saw, and a table saw, and more power tools that you can shake a stick at. I make all of this stuff with what any guy can go and buy at Home Depot."

The work he does now -- both in his employment at the museum and as a sculptor -- hearkens back to his roots more than the work he did in England. Criddle was raised in a working-class family in South End on Sea, a Coney Island-like resort town on the banks of the Thames as it comes in from the North Sea. His dad was a former Royal Air Force airplane mechanic and later a union shop steward and truck driver with a penchant for auto repair.

Criddle's schooling from age 11 to 17 had a huge shop component in it, learning woodwork and metal work that was entrenched in the world he was growing up in and the prospects for a kid in his position.

"I was always the kid who was resourcefully building and repurposing things," he said, "like some thrown-out supermarket trolley or somebody's old pram on a dump, we would be making go-carts. I was always building dens and shacks in the backyard, and bomb sites -- there was always plenty of dereliction that was a feast for us kids. It's like Peter Pan, I suppose I never grew up."

Criddle says that even though he loved all that, he never felt like that world was quite for him -- he had another side, a creative side, that dictated his needs, and a trade job would never offer him.

"I was also the kid who loved to draw," he said, "and whenever there was the opportunity in school to do a project that was creative, like make a model of an iron age hill fort or something, that was it, it was a great thing to do. If you went to trade school back then, they would beat that sort of creativity out of you with a whip."

Criddle ended up going to art school, convinced that graphic design was his calling -- a diagnostic first year changed that when he encountered sculpture, which brought together all his worlds.

"I was into that for about a term and then discovered the sculpture studio," said Criddle, "and the fact that you could make a noise, you could make a mess, you could use tools and mix buckets of plaster and crap like that, and I got bitten by the bug, and all I can say is it must be terminal, because I'm still doing it.

"It was just amazing that this whole spectrum of sculptural possibilities were there. You could learn stone carving or you could learn bronze casting or you could perfect welding skills or you could work with a table saw and they would teach you how to do it, but the real thing was they would also teach you to think -- think like a sculptor and have dialogues with other sculptors."

Sculpture, as Criddle learned it, became an outward manifestation of an inward journey, a form of visual poetry to express the abstract truths that are learned through communion with oneself. In Criddle's case, it became a way to take all the parts he amassed, all the skills he had learned, and use work to fashion three-dimensional, psychological signposts.

"It wasn't just about stuff, it was about what goes on up here," he said. "The real thing they taught you to do was talk to yourself. They say that's the first sign of real madness, don't they, but that creative dialogue that goes on in your mind, it's like listening to voices. When I come in here with my sandwich box and thermos flask on a Saturday morning, you've got to shut up and listen to the voices. So when you have a bit of this and a bit of that, there has to be a bit of time to sit back in that chair over there. It's not all just crash, buzz buzz, zing zing, weld weld, it's like I've got to think about this."

"Half the time, things are held together with a thousand clamps. I'm not going to drill a hole in it in case I screw it up, so I clamp it together first. Things are left what I call cooling. You've got to set them up, clamp them together, and walk away, and give yourself some menial task to do, laboring, and then maybe when you turn around and look back at it clamped together, the voices will start. You'll actually see it with a fresh eye."

While many of his sculpture's parts are salvaged from other places -- his job at the museum also puts him in contact with a network of professionals who are always putting aside material for him, including carnival ride parts -- it's Criddle's own hunter/gatherer instinct that provides the purest pleasure of his process.

"One of my favorite things to do is go to flea markets and tag sales," said Criddle. "I still like to carve and I still like to cast and I still like to weld stuff together, but I really like the shopping part of it. You've got to have your antenna out to notice the bits and bobs that are out there that form the words and the phrases and the passages that make the visual poetry."

There is also a problem-solving aspect to the sculpture that is also key to Criddle's job in the museum, but with his own work he's able to apply that skill in a more free form way, with no expectations toward what the process leads to.

"The first thing you have to do is work out the problem and then you have to think about how to try and solve it, or if solving it is the right thing to do," Criddle said. "Maybe you just set up another set of questions."

"But with me in the studio, the key is to be prepared to play, so that's like going back to being a kid. It's freedom, and it's supposed to be fun, isn't it? When I come in here, this is freedom. This is the free zone. This is not like having to do what some other artist needs or wants, or a curator asks me to do, or what people expect."

MoCA'S Richard Criddle unleashes his menagerie.
August 24, 2012

Compendium, an exhibition of sculpture and drawing by Richard Criddle opens at MCLA Gallery 51, North Adams Massachusetts on Thursday August 30th 2012.