New York

Tony Cragg

The work in Tony Cragg’s recent exhibition marks a significant shift away from the imagistic assembled sculpture for which he is known. Although some of the new pieces are collections of objects, his arrangements of myriad minute fragments have been replaced for the most part by large unitary forms, or by works in which two or three objects are joined in tight compositions. Cragg’s most typical material, plastic, has given way here to more traditional media—clay, metal, glass, and wood—presented in a more traditional relationship to the supporting floor. However, these differences are somewhat superficial, for the works develop and refine Cragg’s decade-long deliberation on the relationship between industrial society and nature.

The six sculptures shown here (all from 1987) are products of Cragg’s reflective survey of the world around him and his sharp inquiry into the limitations of human powers of fabrication. They are independent and visually unrelated images that evoke ambiguous responses to equivocal cultural states. Spill is an amphoralike vase cast in bronze, turned on its side in a multivalent image of dissipation. Mortar and Pestle, a lustrous cast-aluminum rendering of the pair of pharmacist’s instruments referred to in the title, is an implicit homage to the man-made (and hence to fabrication), although he has given the mortar a rather biomorphic, beanlike shape. Cragg emphasizes the tools’ functional perfection, but he also seems to alert us to the tainted status of all images of perfection. Eroded Landscape consists of an assortment of laboratory instruments made of sandblasted glass—a plate, several beakers, and other vessels—arranged like a Giorgio Morandi still life on the corroded wood surface of a table whose supporting framework is made of perforated metal brackets. The arrangement is a compendium of smooth curves, suggesting organic plenitude, but the glass is riddled with holes to imply the violation of perfection. Each of these works, in fact, appears to be structured to suggest both the making of a thing and its by-product of waste. In Generations a white plaster disk (perhaps a potter’s wheel) is surrounded by faultlessly shaped organic folds as well as by the discards that accompanied their production.

Cragg’s ability is to render dense, concentrated images with broad metaphoric reach. These new works are most notable for the confluence they establish between the terms of nature and culture or, more properly, nature and civilization. Because the terms cannot be isolated from each other, neither can be valorized: they exist in a state of interdependence, which precludes the moralistic imputation of loss. This notion is developed in the tripartite Mollusk. The doughnut-shaped element in this cast-steel sculpture was based on a mollusk shell that Cragg found clinging to a piece of polystyrene by the sea. In the cast sculpture, the relation of natural to synthetic has been reversed and, in con- sequence, equalized, as miniature binoculars, a toy car, a flashlight and other artifacts of civilization are shown clinging to the massive natural forms.

Kate Linker