Richard Cleaver is a Baltimore-based artist who creates elaborate figurative sculptures full of hidden compartments to capture the lives and secrets of historical figures and personal acquaintances. The artist is fascinated by monarchies, mythology and religion, and these themes form the subjects of his work. Constructing the sculptures in clay, Cleaver paints meticulous patterns and applies precious and semiprecious stones to create the sumptuously decorated surfaces. “Tableau: The Art of Richard Cleaver,” on view Sept. 16–Jan. 7 at the Delaware Art Museum, surveys 14 installations of more than 50 sculptures (2005–present) and the private worlds they reveal.
“‘Queen’s Closet’ (1995) is a very popular work in our permanent collection,” says Margaret Winslow, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. “The work explores Henry VIII of England, famous for divorcing or executing his wives when they failed to produce male heirs. When compartments are opened and knobs turned, the cabinet’s interior reveals portraits of Henry’s six wives. This work inspired ‘Tableau: The Art of Richard Cleaver,’ and we are excited for visitors to experience more of the artist’s sculptures and the scenes they portray.”
Cleaver spent countless hours studying medieval and Asian art. The symbolism of these subjects, along with his interest in Northern and Italian Renaissance styles and Catholic imagery, have served as inspiration for the artist. “When I was very young I loved to draw,” Cleaver says. “My brothers and I would draw together, coming up with stories informed by television. We would create comic strips of new endings and then compare them as a competition of sorts. As a child I also made little dolls—usually kings and queens—and I kept them in shoeboxes under my bed.”
Cleaver began combining his painting and ceramic practices early during his undergraduate study at Maryland Institute College of Art. Experience as an illustrator, portrait painter and theater dresser supported his coalescence of elaborately painted surfaces and figurative clay sculptures. The addition of wire, pearls, semiprecious and precious stones, patterned mark making and decorative stitches are used to enhance the surface and expand the forms. The artist often uses eggshells to mimic porcelain and fabricates architectural details, resulting in horror vacui, the complete covering of the sculpture’s surface with ornamentation.
“Cleaver’s sculptures traverse the fine, craft and visionary art fields,” says Winslow. “His personal vision is foremost in his creative act, and Cleaver incorporates other skills, such as woodworking, in a self-taught fashion.” Cleaver conflates his myriad interests and inspirations, creating figures that, with “staring eyes and glaring teeth,” reveal and conceal their hidden stories.
For more, visit delart.org.