Tony Cragg

The focus of Tony Cragg’s work of the early ’80s—particularly the schematic human figures composed of found fragments of colored plastic—was the interplay between the image-generating power of the found object and the specific challenge to traditional esthetics inherent in the high-voltage colors of synthetic materials. Plastic is a thoroughly disreputable material for art, yet in its infinite malleability, in the ease with which it can be replaced, it presented the artist with a true creative challenge. Through the processes of art, Cragg assigned a new identity to the artificial refuse of a modern industrial society, forming a merger of the human and the material worlds.

This metamorphosis of the mundane into the sublime continues to be one of Cragg’s central concerns. In his more recent work, however, he has moved closer to an architectural sense of form and a more qualified use of industrial materials. Circles, 1985, is a group of three eccentric columns, composed of found ring-shaped elements—rubber tires, wood spindles, metal cogs and wheels. These could either be sounding towers designed to test the uncertain current of society, or the refuse of an archaic ritual. They were precisely balanced by Cambrian Surface, 1985, an assemblage of three asymmetrical boxes constructed of white laminated chipboard that functioned simultaneously as evocative images of a New Age architectural landscape and as wastebins for countless discarded cast-iron objects. The white veneers lightened the piece, making it seem less deliberately floor-bound than Cragg’s other architectural pieces—for in stance, the poetically titled Evensong, 1984, a lopsided, houselike structure, its laminate surfaces scribbled with black-wax crayon.

Taking their place between the more formal sculptures assembled from fairly common industrial materials, and the schematic, alliterative ensembles of objets trouvés, are Cragg’s open constellations of suggestive found objects. Liverpool Stop, 1985, a seemingly haphazard assemblage of an industrial-cable spool, a wooden trunk, a flywheel, and metal pipes is one of these. The apparently chance encounter with these worn objects slowly crystallizes into a moment of poignancy: the imaginary visit of the artist to his hometown of Liverpool, a city well-known to be threatened by the rapid depletion of once-vital industrial energy.

Formal descriptions of the works in this exhibition (whose strength derived not least from the spatially unrestricted dialogue among the various sculptures) can only weakly capture the tremendous creative energy that radiates from Cragg’s belief in art as a sociocultural force. Through his encounter with the props of everyday life, Cragg has derived a deceptively simple compositional art that successfully infiltrates and realigns the normative forces of contemporary society What makes his cool, “staged” sculpture significant within the context of today’s art is its multiplicity, its rich form-giving potential. Cragg condenses our perceptions of the world around us into an outline of a utopian architectural landscape that will serve as the locus of refined human sensibility, transforming the relics and raw materials of a technologically sophisticated society into the building blocks of a reciprocal relationship between the imagination and the constructed world.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.