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Kenneth Riddle ACME, Santa Monica, California
Margaret Sherwood

Black Thumb, 1996, steel, gun parts, particle board, lead, acrylic on paper maché

Like skeletons peering ominously from a dark closet of the mind, Ken Riddle's display of five pieces from his "Paranoid Theories Wear Boots" series graced the back room at ACME. Riddle's work is immediately recognizable as being different from the cool conceptual concerns of most work being shown by his CALARTS contemporaries. His assemblages are an expressive and finely-detailed concoction of used gun parts, toy models, Prozac bottles, and other debris, revealing a personal history within the context of late 20th-century mass culture. Riddle has created an individualized "Folk Art" which addresses the struggle of the human psyche for love and survival amid the mechanical violence of industrial technology.

Riddle's sculptures have an animated feel to them, just shy of sliding and creaking across the gallery floor. But silent and motionless they remain, forever frozen as time-travel narratives, reminiscent of films like Dune, Star Wars, Blade Runner and T2. Like these movies, the themes in Riddle's work involve heroic journeys through time, space, and unfamiliar territory to save hope, find truth, and escape tyranny through an ultimate faith in humanity. With a little help from supernatural forces, the fearless protagonist survives, a shade worse-for-wear--but wiser.

In a piece entitled black thumb, empty Zoloft bottles (a Prozac derivative) are mortared together with glue to form a removable rooftop to a 19th-century style carriage. The rooftop lifts off to reveal a miniature rendition of Los Angeles' La Brea Tar Pits. A decaying woolly mammoth lies stuck in a plaster pit. This mangled mess of elephantine carcass has been twisted, pulled, and partially devoured by a demonic fairy who comes equipped with skull-face, wings, mitts, and claws for ripping and snatching at the hearts of his unfortunate prey. Our fiendish little friend mockingly displays a red and shiny, freshly chosen, heart-shaped heart ("the largest he could find") as a trophy. As cruelty mixes with delight and triumphant glory, one can almost hear the haunted house screams coming from inside the toy model's laughing skull.

Skillfully hidden inside the base of the carriage is a "survival kit" consisting of (1) Zoloft tablet, a throat drop, (1) Band-Aid, an amethyst crystal, and fishing supplies, coupled with (2) earthquake-ready drinkable water packets. Ever-prepared for that long journey across a mental desert, the "kit" speaks metaphorically about the need for psychic survival. It also hints at an existential longing for substance--which, for Riddle, remains at present elusive and undefined.

In a full-sized standing sculpture titled paranoid theories wear boots, the base is made of recycled guns and knives garnered from the LAPD. Riddle has delicately fashioned this weaponry into three spindly legs attached to a warrior spider. Three knives precariously place the spider on tip-toe, including one small single wheel down the center of the piece, which just grazes the floor, inconceivably balancing the whole thing. If a curious observer comes close enough to view the intricate fantasy-scape within the body of the piece, then both art work and viewer are in danger of a fatal collision. Critics and fans alike, proceed with caution.

Sitting pretty across a blood-red wishing well is a Zoloft-petaled flower, grown large and strong, a pharmacological ray of hope amid a Boschian garden of doom. Amethyst crystals gracefully surround the well, and a toy wizard sits atop a snow-capped mountain. A reference to the mysterious "powers" of the artistic mind, perhaps? Or maybe an allusion to hope in the new-age and its wizardry ways? The meaning isn't quite clear, nor is it intended to be. Riddle invites multiple meanings of the work through individual interpretations.

Psychedelic mushrooms surround the edge of an interior landscape--most are dead or dying, skulls embedded in them. One mushroom survives, with a portrait of the artist's head extruding from its center. The skull of this mushroom has been cracked open to reveal a cerebral cortex oozing with green glop: A wry comment on the role of the artist as a suffering maniacal genius. Directly above the landscape sits a disembodied speaker-system. To the right side and down from the speaker-head, cardboard ears of varying shapes and sizes bleed molten metal "lava." No sound emanates from the speaker. It's just a prop, as are most of the elements in this very human psychodrama.

Riddle has infused his work with dark humor and poetry. His arrangements of unlikely forms have been skillfully fashioned, with a subtle optimism of spirit, in a way that transforms the heavy symbolic content into lyrical verse. The sensitivity with which the materials have been handled, and the multi-layered meanings laced thoughtfully throughout this body of work, give otherwise loaded cultural symbols much needed grace, eloquence, and personal significance.

Margaret Sherwood

Los Angeles, California

1997

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