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Small World

Kings And Slaves Stand Shoulder To Shoulder In The Miniature Universe Of Richard Cleaver

LITTLE PEOPLE: Richard Cleaver’s figurines are arresting and painstakingly detailed.

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/2/2005

Richard Cleaver: Gathering at the Latrobe Spring House

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through April 3

There’s a childlike obsessiveness at the heart of Richard Cleaver’s bejeweled ceramic, wood, and wire figurines. Lined up on an altarlike display within the Baltimore Museum of Art’s neo-classical Latrobe Spring House, the 100-plus meticulously detailed miniature humans, animals, and botanical elements that comprise “Gathering” simultaneously evoke the décor of Catholic churches and the careful, mannered organization of a child’s beloved toy soldier set.

Making use of an oft-ignored venue, “Gathering” is a natural fit for the Latrobe Spring House, given Cleaver’s longstanding association with the building. Cleaver currently lives and works on the grounds of the old North Baltimore Oakland Farm where the Latrobe Spring House once stood. A gilded replica of the building stands at the center of Cleaver’s installation, and many of the figures included represent slave characters that once worked on the estate, for whom the artist extemporaneously invents stories. It’s rare that an installation has such direct ties to the gallery space surrounding it, and Cleaver makes full use of the connection, loading “Gathering” with pastoral and farming imagery. Ranging widely in height, costume, and expression, and painted with a crackled technique that suggests age, Cleaver’s expertly executed figures are often reminiscent of medieval icons, even though they depict characters from a wide range of backgrounds and time periods.

Time is malleable here. A stiff, militant version of Tsar Nicholas II stands near Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I, all in period dress. Cleaver’s bespectacled aunt and grandmother appear in brightly colored muumuus. Other figures are purely allegorical, particularly a series of sharp-suited gentlemen who hold miniature versions of themselves. Some figures, including an arresting black nursemaid/Madonna with child, feature hinged compartments that conceal extra faces and decoupage images. In the nursemaid’s case, her white charge’s head opens to reveal the face of her own child, and a white woman in modern dress hinges open to reveal a miniature child, tucked into her cabinetlike womb. All of Cleaver’s characters and creatures are wide-eyed and staring, seemingly oblivious to one another and the pastoral imagery that surrounds them.

Upon close inspection, it seems that the figures in “Gathering” all spring from Cleaver’s subconscious. At the bottom of the assemblage, a reclining figure dreams amid a tangle of vines and deer, and a central element depicts the artist’s head, crowned with ruddy coral-like branches and staring blankly ahead, with an image of two embracing men pasted to his outstretched tongue. It’s impossible to fathom all of the levels of symbolism and iconography present here—passing references are made to classical mythology, fairy tales, the Bible, the 19th-century cult of curiosities, and the slave trade, and familiar iconic images, like the nine tiny skulls lined up in front of a gilded miniature version of the Latrobe Spring House, abound.

In this sense, “Gathering” is a pastiche of personal iconography, populated with characters and images from Cleaver’s own restless imagination. In fact, Cleaver’s fascination with doll-like figures stems from a childhood spent fashioning family members, movie stars, royalty, and toy soldiers out of plasticine and aluminum foil. He often had to conceal his handmade dolls from his parents, who disapproved of his hobby, and the theme of concealment and secrecy carries through all of his ceramic work, also a nod to his past experience as a homosexual youth growing up in the Catholic Church.

Multiple narrative possibilities and wide-ranging symbolism aside, however, Cleaver’s work exhibits a nigh-fanatical attention to detail, and an opulence rarely seen in secular sculpture. Goats are carefully coated in 23-karat gold leaf. A pair of horses sports a cracked turquoise faience effect. Vines and bird’s nests are fashioned out of wire painstakingly pulled out of door screens, and festooned with garnets, crystal beads, and freshwater pearls. One figure’s trousers are covered with trompe l’oeil coral branches, echoing the imagery established elsewhere in the piece.

As a result, there’s almost too much detail to take in here. The installation’s presentation, face-forward atop a stepped platform, does not allow viewers to inspect the figures as closely as they might like, and while the rigid formal arrangement of the pieces imparts a sense of sanctity, the level of detail that Cleaver presents begs to be taken at all angles. In this sense, “Gathering” keeps its audience at arm’s length in a most unsettling way. The figures invite the eye in with shiny elements and fine detail, but never fully divulge their secrets, and never fully attain humanity. Their stiff lack of interaction with one another and the surrounding space keeps them aloof. This presentation carries a stark, powerful air, but it’s difficult to admire the full artistry of Cleaver’s work when it is viewed from afar. This much effort and craftsmanship should be appreciated up close, and while the Latrobe Spring House doesn’t offer that option, its churchlike ambiance can’t be beat.

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