Stephen Cripps: Pyrotechnic Sculptor

Institute exhibition
21st November 2013 - 16th February 2014
Sculpture Study Galleries

© The family of Stephen Cripps/Leeds Museums and Galleries (Henry Moore Institute Archive)

Stephen Cripps: Pyrotechnic Sculptor is the first posthumous exhibition of the work of British sculptor and performance artist Stephen Cripps (1952-82). Spanning the artist's short career from 1970 to 1982, the exhibition explores the startling originality of Cripps' sculptural experiments. He transformed objects with actions, sound and pyrotechnics, developing numerous and ambitious schemes for mechanical sculptures and performances involving military hardware, fire, smoke, light and amplified sound. His proposals ranged from mobile crematoria to mechanical gardens, exploding balloons, floating fires and choreographed aerial performances.

Cripps used drawings to develop and describe his ideas: some of these were realised as unpredictable events and ephemeral installations, whilst others remained full of potential on the page. Today all that survives of his sculptures are photographs and drawings, moving from detailed plans and large-scale mixed media works to rapid sketches on scraps of paper that, torn, singed and smeared, bear the marks of Cripps' experimentation.

Cripps started to choreograph performances involving machines, film, sound and light whilst studying at Bath Academy of Art (1970-4), where he wrote his thesis on the work of Jean Tinguely (1925-91), whose work 'Spiral' (1965) is on show (until 5 January 2014) in the Institute's series of one work exhibitions in Gallery 4. On graduating, Cripps took a studio in Butler's Wharf, London, a location that was then the hub of experimental artistic practice. Here he lived, worked and stored salvaged objects for his constructions. In this fertile studio complex Cripps' focus shifted from mechanical sculpture to volatile events: in 1979 he joined the London Fire Brigade, both to earn money and to further his knowledge of pyrotechnic devices. During his short career, Cripps exhibited machine and sound installations including Spills and Thrills at Bath Academy (1974), Machine Dances at Bath and Tufnell Park Community Festivals (1974-6) and Machine for Birds at the Serpentine Gallery Summer Show III (1975). He had three solo exhibitions at the Acme Gallery (1978, 1980 and 1981), and staged numerous pyrotechnic performances in the UK, Europe and America. He increasingly collaborated with other artists and musicians, including the percussionist Paul Burwell, the performance artist Anne Bean and the London Musicians' Collective.

Stephen Cripps: Pyrotechnic Sculptor celebrates the acquisition of Cripps' archive by the Henry Moore Institute Archive. A part of Leeds Museum and Galleries, the Archive is managed in a unique partnership that has built one of the strongest public collections of sculpture in Britain. The exhibition is one of a series highlighting recent acquisitions to the collection, focusing on artists who emerged in the 1970s and 80s, including Phyllida Barlow, Helen Chadwick, Shelagh Cluett, Keir Smith and Darrell Viner. As well as Jean Tinguely 'Spiral' (1965) in Gallery 4, this exhibition is accompanied by Dennis Oppenheim: Thought Collision Factories in Galleries 1, 2 & 3, which is dedicated to the American artist's examination of fireworks and flares as creative forces. Cripps' work can also be seen this autumn in a survey of the Acme Gallery's exhibition programme at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.

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