New York

Tony Cragg

Complete Omnivor, 1993, one of the more disturbingly persuasive of Tony Cragg’s new sculptures, presents us with what appears to be a full set of human teeth—molars and all, scaled-up enormously and cast in plaster—displayed on a rudimentary wood-and-metal armature in anatomically correct order. The artist’s self-portrait, perhaps, or maybe a perverse reflection on the archaeology of dentistry.

Shuttling things from the known to the unknown and back again might be an adequate characterization of the contemplative “dialectic” that Cragg’s work invariably sets in motion. It’s now rather easy to identify this British sculptor’s recurring formal tendencies and conceptual motifs. Since becoming known to New York audiences in the early ’80s, Cragg has demonstrated a penchant for taking the so-called everyday object and doing something to it (to paraphrase Jasper Johns), or supplanting it with an augmented proxy that bears the signs of reinvention. Certainly not a revolutionary conceit, hut, in the case of this artist, a marvelously articulated one.

Cragg’s early multicomponent, plastic-part works featured scavenged things—apparently artifacts from the prefab world of mass production—that had been organized into colorful groupings, occupying areas of floor or wall in a highly territorial manner. Mapping the man-made environment in an intuitively regulated fashion, these spontaneous inventories evoked the hidden detritus of industrial society and hinted at the possibility of salvaging a new type of beauty from our throwaway culture. Ten years ago, when the future of sculpture seemed entirely up for grabs (a period when artists such as Joel Shapiro and Mel Kendrick had become exemplars of grand lapses into mannered post-Minimalism and revival Ab-Ex, respectively), upstart Cragg and a number of his compatriots, such as Anish Kapoor and Richard Deacon, came along to administer first aid. Their arrival, coupled with the emergence of Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach, indicated that sculpture could once again be called on to perform various operations: a site for the reevaluation of its own historical conditions, as well as a framework in which to propose new relations between “traditional” esthetics and previously disenfranchised cultural forms.

Over the intervening years, Cragg has managed to develop a rare consolidation of sculptural tropes, spinning together the aspect of British high formalism that emphasized a hands-on involvement with materials (evident in the work of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, as well as that of Anthony Caro), a rethinking of techniques of assemblage and of the historical burden of European Surrealism. With a monumentality that feels at once whimsical and soberly researched, the artist’s elegant defamiliarizations entreat the viewer to probe deeper into the works’ formal, material, and procedural bases, while always creating a niche for an imminent return of symbolism and iconographic signification.

In these new works, Cragg has continued to formulate interesting responses to his own inquiry into the malleability of materials, and, as usual, seems to relish the opportunity to experiment judiciously with a range of ingredients. Of the six pieces offered here, the most disconcertingly enigmatic was Time Suds, 1993, a modestly sized, yellowed-white object (actually a consolidation of six discrete elements) made of wax, which resembled either a honed-down chunk of coral that had been transmuted into something even more sensuously beautiful from an inordinate amount of exposure to underwater radiation, or an elegantly atrophied blob of tapioca pudding. Whatever one’s associations, here was a cool-plastic organicism expressed with a unique kind of awkward grace. A consummate maker of things tinged with ironic allusions, Cragg compels meaning to wait just around the corner, deferring the encounter until our imaginations start working again.

Joshua Decter