INTRIGUING, biomorphic yet also tectonic and totemic ‘beings’ , have taken over the courtyard and one floor of the Benaki Pireos these days – Tony Cragg’s 25 sculptures. Both organic and futuristic, many of them are tall, verticle structures, that tower over you like a Robo Cop, and look like they are made up of stacked, disc-like shapes, (they belong to Cragg’s ‘Rational Beings’ family). Others are more horizontal in nature, and are part of the ‘Early Forms’ family. These fascinating creations display the artist’s versatile use of steel, bronze, wood and plastic.
However art critics and journalists have often focused on the fact that Cragg, one of England’s most distinguished contemporary artists, who first became famous from his quirky use of found materials in his installations (inspired by movements such as Arte Povera, Minimalism and Conceptualism) has turned towards more ‘traditional’ mediums.
Back in the ’80s, when Cragg first started exhibiting, he had chosen a very different medium which certainly got his artistic statement noticed. Evolving from his exploration of Land Art in the ’70s (as a student), his assemblages began to then use discarded plastic bits and objects – harmoniously arranged according to colour, thus creating a kind of rainbow effect in many of the works, as well as creating a certain recognizable shape when viewed as a whole (eg. the shape of a leaf, a person, a half moon, a hoover, even the union jack). It was a marrying of the latest art trends of the time, coloured with a little Pop aesthetic: from rocks and stones, to the waste products of our consumer culture – plastic fantastic.
From 1990-94, Cragg seems to move away from those rainbow coloured works, and starts exploring other mediums – using both found objects (jam jars, steel rings, wooden objects) but also starting to explore stone, plastic, metal and casting. From 1995-99 Cragg continues to explore casting, and using other mediums, even glass, but colour doesn’t seem to concern him – he is exploring forms in particular via various mediums, changing them, twisting them, stacking them. Human forms also start to make their appearance again. Then in 2000, colour starts creeping in again, red and yellow in particular. His forms become more fluid and dynamic. They get slicker and more complex in 2005-2009, while Cragg evolves his unique creations into more shapes and sizes in 2010-14, using wood, bronze and stone, refining the final shapes of his products even further via the use of digital imaging and computer technology – the 21st century artist’s tools.
Cragg doesn’t like to call his works ‘series’, but instead prefers the term ‘families’, and his most recent two families are the ‘Early Forms’ and ‘Rational Beings’ (examples from both included in the current show). He explains in an interview with Jon Wood that although there is a connection between all of his works (an underlying thread), at some point, some sets of works need to be ‘tagged’ differently:
‘’These become ‘species’ of work and so we get sculptures belonging to a certain family, and then there are other families, and then there are relationships between these families etc…, and I think this has happened quite naturally. Firstly, it’s convenient for me and, secondly, it’s possibly the way the world just developed biologically anyway: from simple cells developing into more complicated, specialised forms.’’
Cragg explains further in this interview how he began to introduce human profiles into the ‘Rational Beings’ species, because ‘That was important for me because there’s obviously enormous emotional baggage that comes with being able to read that subtle anthropomorphic quality. I always thought that it was erroneous to think of them as portraits, I mean they’re not portraits. We have an ability to look at a cloud and see a face, or we look into some vegetation and see a face, because we have this enormous facility to recognise profiles and faces, so it’s almost inevitable that when there are no faces to look at, our brain is revving all the time, looking for parameters for two eyes, and a nose, and a mouth, and some ears.’’ However, Cragg wants this recognisable part of the work to be only the first step for its exploration – one that leads the viewer to then see the work from a formal, abstract or sculptural point of view for example.
The artist has claimed in other interviews that he was wary of his move towards traditional mediums such as bronze casting, seeing as British sculpture heavyweights such as Henry Moore moulded their brilliant careers via such materials. Yet, one could say that Cragg’s latest sculptures have brought such traditions into the 21st century, and have breathed new life into them. Although the influences of works by other great sculptors such as Moore, Brancusi and Boccioni are evident in Cragg’s current works – there’s no doubt that he has also created something new. The forms are definitely new, and furthermore, he has changed the character of the bronze sculpture, by giving it a different colour and surface – the blue and yellow works in the show are bronzes at heart.
After all, isn’t postmodernism involved in an ongoing discourse with other great works and movements of art? Maybe what Cragg realised in this more mature chapter of his creativity, is that although you try to escape your cultural baggage, it’s not so easy to totally disengage with it… especially if you find yourself wanting to explore it! Cragg looks to nature and science for inspiration (as his organic, biomorphic forms suggest), yet also to society (eg his early assemblages), but why not engage with art too – the latter producing a recycling process of sorts, of purely artistic means, ways and philosophies.
But for Cragg, the underlying thread has always been an exploration of different materials – that’s why he calls himself a ‘materialist’. Cragg’s artistic focus on materialism has also been rewarded in monetary terms – considering that his recent sculptures (like the ones in the Benaki show), are fetching some pretty hefty prices in the art market (around 500,000-700,000 pounds for the larger works, 250,000 pounds for small works).
Born in 1949, Liverpudlian Cragg worked at the National Rubber Producers Research Association as a Lab Technician before commiting himself to the study and practice of art. And he was serious about it – studying for 8 years at three different art schools: Gloucestershire College of Art and Design (Foundation Course), Wimbledon School of Art (BA), and London’s prestigious Royal College of Art (MA), before becoming a professor at France’s Ecole des Beaux Arts de Metz (1976). From 1978-88 Cragg taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, later becaming a professor there – and its director. In the ‘80s Cragg saw his works in many international art events – such as Kassel’s documenta 7 and then 8, Sao Paulo’s Biennial (1983), and he also represented Great Britain at the 43rd Venice Biennale of 1988 (having also exhibited in the Biennale of 1986). A winner of the prestigious Turner Prize (1988), he was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1992. Furthermore, in 2002 he became a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). And that’s just some of his long list of achievements.
Cragg’s academic excellence is also another chapter, or rather a parallel road to his artistic path, which added to his name many honorary professorships and more academic titles from around the world. All in all, Cragg has been deeply rewarded for his creative genius both by the art world and academia.
Now back to the exhibition… If you ever wondered what it would feel like to travel through time at the speed of light, then check out Cragg’s ‘The Runner’, where the human body has turned into a dynamic zig-zag of negative and positive space. Is there a connection with Varotsos’ glass ‘Runner’ one wonders? Have you ever seen the way a willow tree moves in the wind? Cragg’s sculpture ‘Willow’ turns this motion into a wooden swirl. ‘Bent of Mind’ on the other hand presents in bright red wood how some of Cragg’s sculptures change as the viewer sees them from different angles – from one side it is a profile of a face, while from another angle, this is an abstract, biomorphic, totemic form that seems to defy gravity in the way it balances its disc-like components one on top of each other. And how about the ‘holy’ (as in full of holes) nature of the Jesmonite sculpture entitled ‘Sharing’? There must be a pun there…
Many of these sculptures are so slick and perfectly crafted, that they have great aesthetic appeal. Yet although Cragg has mostly employed traditional mediums and methods to craft them, they are nevertheless products of our age. The ‘Rational Beings’ in particular seem to praise the notion of speed in their fluid forms (despite being static sculptures). They seem to represent how highly valued this concept is today: the faster we become, the better. From this point of view, they are also like an upgraded form of Futurism – bigger, better, faster-looking, ready for the space age. But they go way beyond Futurism too, gaining inspiration from nature and culture, the organic form and the geometric, even the geological, to create swirling, lyrical arabesques of line and movement. Among other things, they also speak of Cragg’s view of the human form as being both organic and geometric (from a molecular point of view in particular).On the surface, we appear to be organic, but inside us, there’s a whole lot of geometry and rationality going on.
(Cragg’s works are on display at the Benaki Pireos until November 8)