Over the Rainbow: Richard Crooks’ Tokyo Dayz

Toyko Dayz Richard Crooks_web

Artist Richard Crooks translates his phenomenological wanderings into dynamic colourful collage. Here, Stephen Clarke, curator of Crooks’ current show, finds parallels in the making of his work with the odyssey undertaken by Dorothy and her friends in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz…

At the beginning of the story ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, written by L. Frank Baum (1900), the appropriately named Dorothy Gale is displaced from her home state of Kansas by a very strong wind. As she shelters in her family’s farmhouse, a cyclone lifts the building into the sky and then drops the structure in a strange and unfamiliar land. From this point of arrival, Dorothy travels through the magical Land of Oz following a path – the yellow brick road – that weaves through places that each have a distinct architecture and culture.

Her destination is the Emerald City that lies at the centre of the realm. This enchanting narrative may be transposed to the adventures of the artist Richard Crooks who, in the autumn of 2019, flew in to contemporary Japan to begin his one-month artist residency at ArtnShelter. For Westerners, Japan has all the wonders of the fictional landscape of Oz; it is this encounter between west and east, artist and the built environment, that generates the collages currently on display at Chester Pride’s Rainbow Tea Rooms.

“Crooks is an artist negotiating unfamiliar urban landscapes”

As Dorothy undertakes her journey she meets three characters: the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Woodman. Each of these characters focus attention on parts of human nature: intelligence, courage and heart. Seemingly, the Scarecrow lacks a brain, the Lion lacks courage, and the Tin Woodman is unfeeling; however, as the story unfolds it becomes evident that the characters already possess the attributes they desire. Crooks is also accompanied by these three characteristics in his practice as an artist negotiating unfamiliar urban landscapes.

Richard Crooks Spiral city break 2019_web.jpg

Richard Crooks completed his degree in Fine Art at Bath Academy of Art in 1987. This was followed by postgraduate studies at Wimbledon School of Art, Goldsmiths College and Cardiff School of Art and Design. Clearly his work has been informed by his academic background. At the outset of the story, the Scarecrow lacks formal qualifications but it becomes apparent that he is able to think in a logical manner. It is the application of acquired knowledge that demonstrates The Scarecrow’s intelligence. Crooks’ use of his own education is key. His beginnings as an artist were as a sculptor in the tradition of Anthony Caro. Later, he applied this formalist approach to ceramic artworks that retained the formalism, but as table top pieces had more delicacy. Drawing and collage have always played a part in his working methods. In recent years this two-dimensional approach has come to the forefront.

“His method of investigation is primarily physical”

Crooks has undertaken several artist residencies, each in an environment that was unknown to him. He spent time exploring Kathmandu in Nepal, and Dhaka in Bangladesh by walking and cycling: his method of investigation is primarily physical. This is not the idle stroll of the flaneur, rather the lived experience favoured by the phenomenologist. It takes courage to encounter the unfamiliar territory of these large urban spaces. Like the friends of Dorothy, Crooks has to earn his self-knowledge. He records this very raw experience by making drawings and taking photographs. In the studio, the artist then attempts to bring some order to the collected chaotic fragments of his journeying: architecture, signs and people are strung together. The pieces Wacoal Whirl (below), Bao Bao Skytree Chiko fun and Spiral city break (above) express the tumultuous nature of the modern Japanese city.

Richard Crooks Wacoal Whirl 2019_web

Dorothy’s companion the Tin Woodman, whilst not a mechanical robot, is a figure that symbolises modes of industrial construction. Enchanted by the Wicked Witch of the East, the Tin Woodman’s axe had chopped off his limbs one by one. As this dismemberment proceeded, his body parts were gradually replaced by metal components, in effect making a facsimile of the original. This act of fragmentation and reconstruction mirrors the work of the artist as he takes bits of the city to then remake in the studio. Unlike the fate of the Tin Woodman, Crooks’ artworks become invested with heart as they portray his active engagement with Tokyo.

“Bright yellow, hot pink, deep blue and fiery orange are the background for each picture”

Ten of Crooks’ collages from his residency in Japan are on display in Chester. Unlike the monochrome Emerald City of Oz which Dorothy finally reaches, his destination is multicoloured. Bright yellow, hot pink, deep blue and fiery orange are the background for each picture, giving a rainbow display to the walls of the tea room. The Rainbow Tea Rooms were opened in May 2022 to provide a city centre space for the LGBTQ+ community. In our recent past the persecution of the community led to coded ways to hide one’s identity and, at the same time, to recognise others who shared the same values and needs.

The term ‘a friend of Dorothy’ was used as a euphemism for a gay man; maybe the phrase can now be reclaimed to refer to all of those that undertake transformative journeys and acknowledge a unity of diversity. At the close of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, the heroine clicks her heels and the magic shoes (iconic ruby slippers in the film but silver in Baum’s book) transport her home. The artist is also whisked away from his brief residency back home through the magic of the airline ticket, where he tells his own story of people and buildings in faraway cities.

Stephen Clarke is Senior Lecturer in Art and Design: Critical and Contextual Studies at the University of Chester

See Toyko Dayz: Richard Crooks, Curated by Stephen Clarke and wall text by Hannah Harry @ The Rainbow Tea Rooms, Chester, December 2023 to March 2024

The Rainbow Tea Rooms are situated in the centre of the city at 28 Bridge Street, CH1 1NQ. Opening hours: 9.30am – 5pm weekdays, 9am – 6pm Saturdays, 10am – 5pm Sundays

Posted on 24/01/2024 by thedoublenegative