Michael Craig-Martin

Michael Craig-Martin’s work becomes more concrete with the passing years. His black-and-red-tape line drawings on gallery walls gave way to outlines defined in black-painted steel, and some of his most recent works (12 of which were shown here, together with some pieces from 1986) are almost freestanding objects. The new works, all from 1987, incorporate elements of the steel outlines within and around aluminum-framed slices of “reality.” All of his work sets out to probe notions of what art is and how it functions. And in his use of found objects and his references to the essence of others, Craig-Martin displays his roots in and continued loyalty to the paradigms of Minimalism and Conceptualism.

In addition to the references to the human figure that appear in all the larger pieces, the two images/objects that Craig-Martin uses most frequently are those of a giant light bulb and of a stepladder, allusions to the imaginative process. In Light Industry, 1987, a large aluminum grid forms eight windowlike spaces through which the viewer can see three distinct, yet segmented objects rendered in steel outline: a ladder, a lightbulb, and a headless man “drawn and quartered,” as it were. Part of his upper torso and one leg appear on both the right and left side of the piece, facing one another across the center as if in mirrored reflection. Unfortunately, such one-dimensional visual puns are the rule rather than the exception in this show. In a recent article, Craig-Martin bemoaned the descent of the Conceptual impulse into mannerism, but there is undoubtedly something of that tendency in his own work. At best, he is able to play with the question of what art is; but in most instances in this show, his work parades a complicity with the idea of art as consumable ornament, a flaunting that defeats more serious thought. Images appear emblematic rather than metaphoric; there is little depth of reference. There are problems too with the physical presence of the works, problems that arise more out of the imprecision of the original concept than out of the intentional commitment to ambiguity. Two of his earlier steel “drawings,” Small Gun and Small Headphones, both from 1986, sitting slightly away from the wall, set up a nice play between the black of the steel itself and the slightly grayer but sharply defined shadow cast on the wall behind. In the works constructed of thicker aluminum, however, this dialogue was far more prosaic and therefore much less suggestive. In addition, some of the aluminum-framed pieces rested on the floor and others were suspended a few inches above. Rather than a real experiment, this looked more like an artist hedging his bets.

Craig-Martin’s Mid-Atlantic, 1987, features an image of a giant drinking glass drawn both in black steel and white neon, bisected vertically by a panel bearing the steel-drawn image of the lower half of a man’s clothed body. The title and divided form of the work might refer to this artist’s own history of movement between the two sides of the Atlantic. The difficulty is that in these newer works, Craig-Martin’s allegiance to the international character of Conceptualism looks like something dangerously close to art tourism.

Michael Archer