Brett Richards loves stone and metal, and it shows in the attention to detail and visual appeal of his 13 abstract and figurative sculptures at All Rise. What attracts him is “the permanence of the material and the fact that you need so much more power than just the strength of your hands to form it. I’ve always been attracted to structural steel, its strength and stability and what it’s capable of doing. If you have enough I beams, you can build a skyscraper or a bridge.” While attending a summer class at Oxbow in 2004, Richards found several I beams at a nearby scrap yard and decided to try altering them: once he’d built an oversize wrench, it took six people to turn it and twist the beams. These pieces “started out as experimentation,” he says, “to see what I was capable of doing as far as manipulating metal. I got some interesting forms.” His first one-person show, which included these works, was installed last year in the offices of a gear manufacturer in Harwood Heights. Five pieces in the present show are made from another piece of scrap metal, a square steel tube that once served as a support for a gas station sign. He cut it up and, after heating it, re-formed the individual sides of the tube with a hammer. “I like that I’m eliminating the original purpose of the tube,” he says.
Richards, who grew up in Manhattan, began working with clay on a wheel at 6, moved on to ceramic sculpture at around 12, and by 13 was carving stone. But he was “miserable” in a beginning sculpture class at the School of the Art Institute, he says, where students talked at length about ideas for pieces they hadn’t made. “I’m more than happy to discuss someone’s art for three hours if there’s something there to discuss,” Richards says. But as it was, “my time would have been better spent beating my head against the wall.” He got the technical help he needed in the beginning foundry class he took the next semester, a course he voluntarily repeated twice more; he took the advanced class five times. In his sophomore year he began casting from molds made directly from female torsos, a series he’s continued. Here, in Detached, six turnbuckles hold the torso within a metal frame. In Clasped the body is severed between the breasts, and clasps seem to keep it from tearing further. Richards says, “I knew I was in for some interesting feedback, that I was being abusive or sadomasochistic or whatever.” In fact the series is intended to reflect on body modification. Richards says he saw a lot of that in New York, “but in Chicago I saw piercings I hadn’tseen before. I started immersing myself in that culture and getting tattoos.”
Richards–a motorcyclist who began riding at 17–researched the history of motorcycles as an SAIC sophomore. He learned that early on motorcycle and automobile side panels, fenders, and gas tanks were forged by hand from sheet metal rather than machine stamped, which meant each piece was different. “To teach myself how to do it, and for aesthetic reasons and for that sense of accomplishment, I’ve been learning to hand form a gas tank,” he says. He bought several tools, including a set of “forming” hammers, and made one tool himself, using plans he discovered on the Internet: an English wheel, which uses rollers to give sheet metal curves. His elegant, assertive Model T, whose sensual forms reveal the influence of Henry Moore, was made with the same tools as the car it’s named after.
Two days after he got his BFA, in May 2005, Richards went to work for a south-side metal-fabricating shop. He left after two months, but within a week he started getting commissions from property owners for architectural metalwork and from artists for cast-metal sculptures. Last August he started BR Sculpture, where he’s in the process of building his own foundry so he can cast and fabricate work not only for other people but for himself.
When: Through 4/29
Where: All Rise, 1542 N. Milwaukee
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.