Where I am is Here
by Tanya Goodwin

The sculptures of Colin Riches are each a crossroads where the paths of many histories and stories meet and converse. There are stories of the sea written in the objects found discarded on Island beaches which have been selected, ‘redeemed’ and given a new significance as part of a sculptural form. There are stories of birth and death, of youth and age, inscribed in the grain of the wood of old trees, the primary material for Riches and his most enduring muse. And there are stories about the artist himself, mediating through this work a valuable sense of the world as he finds it.

Sifting through Riches’ archives there is much evidence of a persistent preoccupation with the question of how a culture determines what is meaningful and who is valuable. For the past twenty years, albeit in different forms, his focus has often turned to what is abandoned and who is left behind. Walking along the beach collecting debris from the foreshore and transforming its meaning, either by changing the context or manipulating the form, can be as much a reflection of his desire to alter the conditions in which we live as is his committed work teaching prisoners and mental health patients. If there is a political dimension to the final work then it is neither didactic nor explicitly stated but instead forms an integral part of the expression of an artist for whom the political is intensely personal. Riches takes resources from the landscape which surrounds him to reveal the contours of an inner landscape that is often much more difficult to map.

His approach to making is characterised by restless experimentation and encompasses both a curiosity about technique and a desire to test the limits of his materials, whether plaster, wax, wood or found objects, and in so doing reveal their innate qualities. Though known as a sculptor, Riches is a talented draughtsman who uses drawing as a media for the exploration of ideas which may later take abstract or figurative sculptural forms.

Over the years his thematic preoccupations and obsessions - brutality and containment, sex and the sacred, identity, fertility and faith - have remained, although the visual vocabulary through which these subjects are explored is continually changing, informed both by technical innovations and new discoveries. If part of the energy of his work comes from this continual experimentation, then another part comes from the intelligent way in which he handles and exposes the tensions inherent in his materials. In doing so he creates richly ambiguous images which ask questions of the viewer: are the forms that seem to be contained within one another emerging or trapped? And when he uses bindings such as bandages to hold pieces together, are they an instrument of constriction or healing?

Riches sees art as a way of articulating non-verbal experience and the process of making is, in his words, ‘a search for identity and healing’. His work plays with the multiplicity of cultural meanings embedded in different symbols and forms, all the while exploring and discovering profound personal meanings. In recent years he has focused on constructing columns - a form with a wealth of symbolism; heroic, monolithic, phallic, and pagan. It has also been used by the sculptor as a signifier of hope.



In Journey columns made of segments cut and scarred with a chainsaw were salvaged from a diseased sycamore felled by the sculptor’s son. In a sketchbook Riches quotes Hendel Teicher writing about the work of Joel Shapiro, ‘forms record on their surfaces the processes of their own making. The surface reveals and brings to light the emotions from which a sculpture has originated’.

The naked, brutal surface of the barkless wood, which has been slashed in deep cuts, conceals an interior strength. In one of his sketchbooks from 2002, Riches noted this paradox and its consequence, writing that ‘the column has a strength, a presence of having been acted upon in a violent way, yet having survived’. Journey is a defiant and uncompromising piece, which demonstrates how sculpture becomes a way of bridging the gap between inner and outer realities.

Much of Riches’ work can be read both as a dialogue with the landscape and a distillation of his experience of being in that space. He has exhibited pieces outside, often in his own garden, and is interested in the notion of how changing the context in which a work is viewed can alter its meaning. The life of a Riches’ sculpture isn’t static but mutable, it doesn’t necessarily have a defined beginning or end, and pieces open to the elements are left to deteriorate and decay, while others are given new forms by being exhibited in different configurations. Riches’ technique of creating work from assembled fragments invites experimentation and this may, in part, be an attempt to break down the contrast between the freedom of drawing and the constraints of sculpture which preoccupies him in his notebooks. But it is also about a reluctance to prescribe meanings and a desire to allow the viewer to enter into a dialogue with a piece uninterrupted.

The psychoanalyst and painter, Marion Milner wrote in 1942 that the ‘symbolizing capacity of the mind, its infinite capacity for using metaphor in expressing psychic realities, flows out in a tremendous stream which has many branches: the imaginative play of childhood, art, symbolic rituals, religion.’

Each of Milner’s ‘branches’ carries significance for Riches. The first, the concept of childhood play, is the condition which Riches seeks to recreate when beginning a work, to recover something of the unselfconscious way in which a child plays with materials ‘in order to learn about themselves and their place in the world’. The second, art, is what offers the possibility of hope. The third, symbolic rituals, can be applied to the making process itself, and there is certainly a ritualistic element in the process of destruction and reconstruction central to the development of a Riches’ sculpture, where the artist imposes a formal order onto disparate materials leaving an imprint of his identity. Milner’s final ‘branch’, religion, could be substituted by ‘belief’, but is fundamental to Riches for whom creative work is a kind of prayer out of which sculptural stories emerge as rich offerings, and objects for contemplation.

The title of this essay is taken from a film made by Margaret Tait in 1964

Copyright Tanya Goodwin and Colin Riches 2005


“...he creates richly ambiguous images which ask questions of
the viewer.”