My first encounter with the work of Richard Crooks was a very physical one. This was in the late 1980s when Crooks and I were fellow postgraduate students in London. He had persuaded me to help him transport his sculptures from one outdoor site to another. His artworks were large, abstract pieces that took their lineage from the work of the American artist David Smith and his British counterpart Anthony Caro—heavy, substantial works that required muscle to move onto a truck. The journey took place on a wet and wintery English day. By the time the sculptures arrived at their destination, it was dark and the ground was rain-sodden. Unceremoniously, the hefty metal objects were thrust out of the back of the truck. They embedded themselves firmly into the mud and remained where they fell.
Fluid Coordinates of Practice
Crooks was trained in the Modernist manner of post-war Western sculpture, first at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham (1984–87) and then at Wimbledon School of Art, London (1989–91). Our road trip had taken place prior to the start of his Master’s degree at Wimbledon where he studied site-specific sculpture. This course gave Crooks an awareness of placement; its emphasis was the production of large sculpture for public spaces. Crooks learned his craft but the fixed nature of such practice did not suit his temperament. On completion of his studies, he began to travel. A worldwide journey took him to India and East Asia where alternative sculptural traditions made their impression, and then across the Pacific to San Francisco to begin his eastward bound US road trip. These explorations through travel have become the fluid coordinates of his practice: he responds to place rather than leaving a concrete marker.
Returning to England led to a lengthy teaching career in London. While these years were fallow in terms of art production, living in the city provided Crooks with an incubating period: London, like New York, is a center for multicultural exchange. Connection with non-Western cultures that had already been established through his travels was reaffirmed in his role as art teacher to pupils whose roots were in distant soils. Regular visits to the capital’s major museums broadened Crooks’ own education. For Crooks, this was a transitional stage between his training as a student of sculpture to his status as a mature artist with experience upon which to draw. After a decade of working in London, Crooks returned to making objects, beginning with rudimentary clay constructions. The malleable clay gave Crooks the flexibility to respond to structural motifs that had interested him.
Learning from Experience
Working with clay initiated further post-graduate study. An MA in ceramics at Cardiff School of Art (2002–2003) introduced a philosophical component to Crooks’ practice that emphasized phenomenology—learning from experience. Central to Crooks’ current methodology is the use of casts. Modelling directly from the motif, he makes plaster molds that allow for duplication of parts of the object and of the mold itself. Fragments come together as collaged constructs, effectively deconstructing their source to be reconfigured into a new whole. Early works made during this period include a series of disjointed ceramic teapots that resemble Cubist sculptures, and figures that are dissected and re-imagined using figurines from India. The two series reflect Crooks’ references and his travels but were not the outcome of first-hand contact with place. Residences in Nepal and Bangladesh would complete his development.
Leaving Marks on the Surface
On the border of Nepal and China lies the mighty Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. A challenge to many climbers, its mass and height makes a physical and psychological impact. Alongside Everest are a number of other mountains that rank among the tallest in the world. Crooks had visited Nepal in 1992, and then again in 2010. Travelling through this landscape of giants, he looked not to the fixed masses but instead the buildings that populate this terrain. These structures reflect the mixed cultures of people who had left their marks on the surface. In August 2012, Crooks became artist-in-residence at Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre (co-founded by the curator and gallerist Sangeeta Thapa). The residency provided Crooks with an opportunity to look more closely at this hybrid architecture, recording its eccentric appeal. Interaction with Nepalese ceramic artist Gopal Kalapremi Shrestha and the artist and academic Sujan Chitrakar added to this direct experience. The ceramic sculptures that Crooks produced as a result of the residency resemble the geometry of the houses that are dotted around Kathmandu: cubic blocks, stepped intrusions, and open spaces. Crooks’ fragile tabletop sculptures look ready to topple in contrast to the lumpen bedrock of the site where they originate. Unlike the climbers that grapple with the physical nature of this place, Crooks was in correspondence with its human habitation.
Rivers flow from the mountainous landscape of Nepal, to the Bengal delta. Much of Bangladesh is covered by this river delta, the largest in the world, and benefits from the rich sediments that make their way from the Himalayas. Crooks’ posts in education had enabled him to visit Bangladesh several times, initially as part of a British Council supported project Connecting Classrooms, and latterly in 2016 as part of the Rivers of the World art and education program. These projects, coupled with his residency in Kathmandu, led him to become the first artist-in-residence of Dhaka’s Bengal Foundation on the invitation of its Chief Curator, Tanzim Wahab. Filmed at the outset of this residency, Crooks explains that his intention is to experience being there rather than produce a predetermined result based on his previous knowledge. In early 2017, he walked and cycled around Dhaka making drawings, taking photographs and collaborating with artists including Dhaka-based Ashim Halder Sagor. Crooks used clay as a sketching medium alongside his use of pencil and camera, allowing him to record through a combination of modelling and casting. These varied fragments were later fixed together as three-dimensional ceramic collages. The artworks imitate the built cityscape of Dhaka that is a jumble of styles, both modern and traditional. Arches and flyovers stretch over this flat land, instigating a lighter approach in some of Crooks’ works from this residency, while his series of pieces titled Wedding Cake are solid towers of layered deposits.
Crooks’ own disposition is one of physical engagement; his training as a sculptor depended on it. The key features of sculpture are still his concerns when making his ceramic artworks: weight, mass, volume, space, and scale. To this formal discourse has been added the observations of travel and engagement with cultural context. Ever since the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), the road trip has become the vehicle for self discovery. For Crooks this is the internal mechanism to his practice. Dissatisfied with the well-trodden path of Modernist sculpture, he ventured along alternative routes. His travelogue responds to the impressions made on him and his art. Less brutish and more sensitive, a shift to the use of clay has produced more refined work. On a recent visit, Crooks asked me to look at his latest work. Opening the trunk of his car he revealed a number of small clay sculptures, not as heavy as his early student works, yet they made a more significant impact.
the author Stephen Clarke is lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies at the University of Chester, England. He studied at Newport College of Art, South Wales (BA Fine Art, 1986) and Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton (MA Contemporary Art and Theory, 1996, and MA Fine Art Printmaking, 2004). His writing and practice encompass collage and photography. Clarke has photobooks published with Café Royal Books and The Velvet Cell, and writes for Photomonitor, The Art Newspaper, Source, and The Double Negative.