New York

Tony Cragg

Tony Cragg's sculpture is endlessly multivalent, ranging from witty works that involve stacking and accumulation (often with found odds and ends such as glass bottles and wooden handles) to highly finished, autonomous carved figures and grand standing vessels. Extraordinarily sensitive to texture, he puts a variety of materials through the paces, sometimes polishing them to slick perfection, other times roughing them up, even scarifying them, as if to suggest pain. There's invariably a whimsical vigor and bizarre integrity to his protean objects, all the more so because they seem peculiarly indecisive and unresolved, as though they were still developing.

I'm Alive, 2000, declares a curve, bending and stretching in what looks like an agonizing exercise—a protoplasmic body just flexible enough not to break—while Secretion (Urge), 2000, seems the embodiment of an impulse, growing more monstrous by the minute. (It is composed of hundreds of dice, perhaps to suggest how much of a gamble Cragg's sculptures are.) The red Formulation (right turning, left turning) and black Formulation (Stance) (both 2000) are not as liquid, but they do look as though they might suddenly sprout an appendage or two. These bulbous, rough-hewn figures contrast sharply with the “moderne” curvilinear vessels Can, 1999, and Conical Flask, 2000, while the more horizontal Can-Can, Rod, and Sinbad (all 2000) feature thick edges and slashing hollows that cleave them into segments. One Way or Another, woo, a gloriously erratic zigzag, vertically builds on its own reflexive movement, and Finnish Totem, woo, while not as jerky, does something similar, piling curved sections to construct a dazzling red figure.

Though no two sculptures are alike, there is a sense of interminable repetition—a kind of blind drive toward extension. Again and again Cragg builds an eccentric structure of seemingly disparate parts that in fact all belong to the same family of shape, each appearing to grow out of the other like a proliferating elementary life form. But no matter how simple the original shapes, the result of the “evolution” is different every time, as though the form were unsure of its nature.

For Cragg, sculpture is an exploratory, imaginative representation of the body in all its abstract quirkiness and unpredictable expressiveness. In a sense, he has returned to the beginnings of sculpture, to the body as an abstract signifier of libido, manifesting itself in any number of perverse ways, all variations on certain basic forms. Cragg seems to have married Picasso's sense of the body's inherent absurdity to Marcel Duchamp's notion of the “erotic machine” (in Robert Motherwell's interpretation). The offspring of this union are like so many expressions of discombobulated desire, at once self-deprecating and explosive. There is something hysterical in Cragg's seemingly haphazard constructions, which is what makes them emotionally alive and physically treacherous—as projections of desire. Restless eros has been converted into sculpture, the eros tragicomically struggling to invent a shape adequate to its intensity, the restlessness transformed into the theatrical eccentricity that shows there is no such shape. Cragg is the greatest sculptor of the power of desire since Eva Hesse, who missed (unlike Cragg) its unexpected humor—how much desire can laugh at itself, realizing its own absurdity, which is its saving grace.

Donald Kuspit