Born 1970, Rochester MI / BA, Wayne State University / Lives in Hamtramck, MI
Chris Riddell uses dead rats as stencils. He makes sculptures that are also weapons, uses rotting ham and head cheese, the aural de/crescendoing of a squeaking wooden armchair, and the scent of lavender as material. He arranges sardines on auto grease and laundry detergent, constructs installations of armless, timeworn statuettes and found, fire-burned family photographs, tangles deflated sex dolls in plastic waste, and sets the mummified dead rat he stenciled with on a 2×4. All of it, everything you got, anything that’s around. His studio is all places and directions, centrifugal and multiplicitous. Smells and phonic material are there too, stinking and dripping and putrescent.
Riddell transmutates. He’s Spinoza’s favorite artist. The cyclical laws and consequences of nature – bombardment, erosion, decay, death – are drawn upon as tools and matter of fact. Weather and time are implements like any other. Decomposition is composition. The means of destruction are the means of production. Photodegradation, the transformation of materials through processes like oxidation and hydrolysis, is embraced as process and attitude. He stabs, speaks, melts, burns, rubs, screams, writes, bends his art.
For two decades, Riddell has exhibited sculptures that could be understood as anthropological dig site artifacts, Duchampian waste, or “what the fuck?” (see Untitled (Artifact), 2018, or any of the artist’s found photography collages). Each work is alchemical. The switch is always on. A hot day yields melted results. The work looks, stinks, and sounds. It’s encrypted with latent, narrative allegory, deep connecting tissue of his familial and educational upbringing, his philosophical investigations, fears and fetishes. The opportunity to exhibit is an act of transposition. His home-car-garage-basement-kitchen-bathroom-bedroom-parking lot-studio washes up and scatters across every surface: wall, lawn, floor, ceiling, window sill, mantle, amplifier, cell phone. In 2017, hours of multivalent videos from the artist’s Instagram account (@riddellagram) were presented at Trinosophes, one after another, on a single television among a spread of object-artifacts and drawings seemingly flung across the floor—dead rat sealed with enamel and polyurethane on wood included (Dead Rat Thing, 2016).
Riddell describes his work as “more spirited than technical,” though his spirit is erudite. He knows the vastness of praxis and how to move around it or move without it. He knows there are ways to do things but there are ways to do things. He xeroxes on the company copier, makes rubbings on cemetery tombstones, paints on plants and with plants, on trash and of trash. He’s a writer. His Instagram account is social media vérité and poetic montage. Though most of Riddell’s work is untitled, language is all over. In a series of sculptures known to also function as weapons, Hernia Hammer (2012) is adorned with a Manneken Pis and the word “HERNIA.” In performances, Riddell recites and skips around to random passages from Buckminster Fuller’s Nine Chains to the Moon, or whatever’s around, processed through a vocal transformer, distorting each word and pitch to create unsettling musical arrangements.
Riddell’s work is loaded with histories, his own and others. Schlitten (Sled), Joseph Beuys’s 1969 work of a sled with fabric and meat, comes to him when thinking about the peculiarity and symbolic operations of flesh in art. Grease, soap, and sardine (2013), a pile of multi-colored candy and laundry detergent powder topped with auto grease and sardine, is his reprise of Wilfredo Prieto’s Grease, soap, and banana (2006).
Riddell’s unavoidable, suspended, rotting ham (Ham, 2018), exhibited in the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead garage at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as part of Riddell’s solo show, “Pizza in a Cup,” is, in part, reference to the flayed, decapitated meat in Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655), and tripliciteously Riddell’s symbol of war, trauma, and suicide. You can’t just see it. The decaying ham produces putrescine (aka tetramethylenediamine), the revolting scented organic chemical compound found in bad breath, and amplifies Riddell’s mise en scène. The hanging, dripping ham is presented a short distance from Donald Trump’s presidential portrait, flanked on each side by disquieting black and white nuclear bomb, mushroom cloud photographs. Found framed portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and a bald eagle, are hung near a golden crucifix. The walls are black and an unplugged amp sits in the corner. The garage is Riddell’s theater, the anxious, disturbed location of his dystopic suburbia and cauterized American tragedies.
Jonathan Rajewski, July 2018
Copyright Essay’d, 2018