Mike Riegel, who is retired from many years of teaching at California State University, Sacramento, continues to be one of the strongest sculptors working in the Sacramento area. A number of works in his current show at Shimo Center for the Arts are reflective of his memories of his father, who died last month at the age of 95 after suffering from failing health and dementia during his last years. It is a powerful and moving show evocative of feelings of sorrow, loss and love.
Riegel’s work takes three directions. In the foreground of the show are two large figures made of wire mesh covered with fabric and tar. One is a hulking, headless, armless figure that crouches as if preparing to jump. The other, titled “king’s chair,” is a low-to-the-ground figure with a swelling breast and vestigial head that resembles an African ruler’s chair. Both are reminiscent of works by Martin Puryear, who also uses the mesh, fabric, tar medium to powerful effect.
Their dark mass is offset by a pair of slender figurers made of concrete and steel. One, titled “embreis,” is a female figure with a slender, concrete, hourglass shape and elongated arms made of steel. She seems to be desperately reaching out to steady herself. The other, “sentri,” also seems to be female, though of a heavier stature and a darker and grainier concrete. She reaches out, holding onto a long pole as if she were a guard or, as the title suggests, a sentry. Again both figures have small heads and seem overwhelmed by their bodies.
The largest number of works in the show are stele-like objects, made of steel with additions of paint and vitreous enamel, that are incised with markings suggesting heads and bodies. A silver triangle sits atop the head of “sor cerous,” whose body also is marked with red and gold lines. If you look at the back of the figure, the image of the drawn figure comes through like a ghostly doppelganger. Other works along this line present skeletal figures almost subliminally drawn on the rectangular steel panels, some like “heart felt,” seemingly weeping.
The most complex of these figures is “thoughts of my father,” made of steel and paint. In it, the rudimentary figure holds his head out in his hands, as if trying to run away with it. The markings on the face are coppery red and a tic-tac-toe sign is inscribed on the torso of the figure, as if it was keeping count of the unaccountable. It’s a powerful image of the panic and confusion brought on by cognitive impairment.
Nearby is a spare yet luxe figure made of gold leaf and steel whose title, suggests transformation of some sort with a gold shape hovering over the head and a meandering path drawn down the torso. And “handman” throws up his rakelike hands in frustration while “in, looking out” holds his hands up to his face as if hiding.
A series of similar works, all titled “t.o.m.f.” (thoughts of my father), is lined up along one wall of the gallery. Two of the figures are subtitled “vessel” and incorporate a box suggestive of a vessel for the ashes of the departed. Two others, subtitled “dem” are wrenchingly painful, the head and arms of the figurers hanging low in a helpless gesture of sorrow and despair.
These works with expressionistic markings and postures combine two- and three-dimensional qualities in heartfelt ways that seem to symbolize the process of grieving that the artist has gone through. Riegel is at the height of his expressive power in these forms, which memorialize a lost loved one.
They are sensitively installed in the newly renovated space at the Shimo Center, which also houses the upstairs studio of the prominent Chinese painter Shimo, who is engaged in promoting interchange between Sacramento artists and their Chinese counterparts.