Tony Cragg

Tony Cragg’s sculptures have a way of seeming either perfect or excrutiatingly fey. At a point in his career at which, under the weight of his diverse production, he threatens to repeat past gestures as facile repertoire, we wonder if the tough experimentation he is known for is a thing of the past. Isn’t this rapidly accumulating output just accentuating the patterns, preferences, and blind spots of an oeuvre that has already resolved itself and entered a late, mannerist phase?

Perhaps Cragg’s unevenness stems from a condition of excessive rehearsal in object making and a consequential denial of improvisation. This seems paradoxical, as Cragg’s failures appear to be the result of feckless improvisational drift. This rupture between material and conceptual systems supports a fairly common critical observation to the effect that Cragg’s work is metaphorically based in language—the “grammar” and “syntax” of the world. The metaphor of “reading” applied to Cragg-the-punster actually abrades his notion of improvisation: the more readable a piece is, the less we see of Cragg-the-improvisor, and vice versa. This is most apparent in two works that are conceptually and materially proximate: Manipulations (The Hand of Man) and Subcommittee (all works 1991). The former is a bundling of Cor-Ten steel test tubes cinched together at their necks to produce the effect of a human hand; the latter is a rubber-stamp “tree,” the sort that one might encounter on the desk of a civil servant.

Despite the similarities of these two works, Manipulation comes across as trite, while Subcommittee does not. Cragg’s addition of cuticles to the test tubes to make them more readily suggest fingers, does make them synthetically affective but distracts us from the question of why he used test tubes in the first place. Subcommittee, on the other hand, is an altogether more “transparent” object. Chunky and deformed, as though it fell from George Tooker to Philip Guston to foundary, it is a paragon of archaism, menace, and dumbness. Both are puns, but only one is appropriately unequivocal and unfussed in the face of improvisation’s demands.

While Cragg embraces and manages improvisation on a scale that is unmatched by his contemporaries (but has become de rigeur for an entire younger generation of artists working in three dimensions), he sometimes comes up against the finitude of this seemingly infinite set of possibilities. When Cragg stated, in the early ’80s, that he “would like to use every material possible . . . anything that is man-made or is being moved by man, or changed by him,” he could hardly have predicted how finite the opportunistic, the accidental, the imperfect, and the temporary would turn out to be. Improvisation, as a point of departure rather than an end, is still bound by the factors effecting intentionality. Couple this fact with the artist’s deliberate move away from found materials and site-specificity toward the carved and the cast, as well as with his publicly announced revulsion with respect to sculpture that “looks like furniture,” and Cragg’s task starts to sound rather difficult. Once the novelty of the wayward, the inconsequential, and the uncertain in the context of the sculptural has been displaced, relinquished, or held in check, a new equilibrium must be found and asserted. Cragg is still doing this when he treats traditional sculptural materials as though they were the plastic shards, scrap lumber, and assorted debris he has previously employed. The most potent works of the exhibition—Beasts of Burden, Vulnerable Landscape: The Thin Skin, and Cumulus—allow us to see this process of equilibration clearly and directly.

One other aspect of Cragg’s work courts disaster, and that is the figurative. Cragg, in fact, has never strayed far from the figurative, but that aspect of his production is the least affecting. Lately, however, I’ve found it salutary to think of the figurative as just another example of Cragg’s improvisatory strategy, one that is linked to the artist’s own sense of historical consciousness rather than materials alone. A sense of this seamless bonding of work, materials, processes, and historical consciousness presents itself in Cragg’s pair of decorative porcelain tigers. They might have been flea-market kitsch or Bond Street antique; we will never know, since he has mercilessly drilled and sandblasted their identity away. It is a nice gesture whereby Cragg manages to keep the faith, demonstrating that he remains focused on the central problems of contemporary art.

Michael Corris