Tony Cragg, Migrant, 2015, bronze, 86 5/8 × 59 × 57 7/8". Photo: Michael Richter.

Tony Cragg, Migrant, 2015, bronze, 86 5/8 × 59 × 57 7/8". Photo: Michael Richter.

Tony Cragg

Tony Cragg, Migrant, 2015, bronze, 86 5/8 × 59 × 57 7/8". Photo: Michael Richter.

Peter Murray, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s director and the curator of “A Rare Category of Objects,” described the show as a survey rather than a retrospective of Tony Cragg’s work—a representation of the “state of [the artist’s] thinking at present.” With fourteen large sculptures dotting the grounds, and 143 works including drawings, prints, and photographs as well as sculpture housed in four galleries and a small project space, the exhibition consists mostly of recent pieces, interspersed with a handful of key historic ones. 

The park’s Underground Gallery houses the bulk of the show: sculptures in the round resting on the floor or on plinths. These works include several of Cragg’s “Early Forms,” 1987–, derived from vessels used by humans since prehistoric times, and a more recent series inspired by the very English passion for shrubbery: “Hedges,” 2008–. In addition, eleven drawings punctuate the display and offer valuable insights into Cragg’s approach to realizing forms, revealing the extent to which his structures, as abstract as they may seem, are inspired by everyday objects. For example, his early linear drawings depict overlapping outlines of jars, test tubes, beakers, and bottles: shapes drawn from his early work as a technician in a chemistry lab. The cumulative effect is a whirling mass of lines in motion. Likewise, a swirling, bulbous floor-based bronze, Migrant, 2015, like other “Early Forms,” hints at the round lips of vessels, here morphed into long, zigzagging elliptical mouths or vulvas. Its curves and twists recall Baroque sculpture, but its openings reiterate the notions of inside and outside also foregrounded in Cragg’s more straightforward containers. 

Cragg’s approach is to classify and layer, working through a cumulative process. An early photograph, Line of Boxes, 1972, offers an example. There, the young artist is documented pushing a stack of cardboard liquor boxes against a wall, effectively creating a horizontal row of cartons supported by pressure on each end and otherwise suspended in the air; a performative work, it is also a temporal structure. Likewise, one of his better-known polychrome figurative wall reliefs of the 1980s, New Figuration, 1985, arranges a collection of found plastic objects into the silhouette of a man with a twisting, elongated torso. Some more recent works are made of plywood sheets glued together, then cut and ground into biomorphic shapes. In most instances, they are reattached or reconfigured with armatures to make up a larger piece. The vertical, freestanding Lost in Thought, 2015, is such a construction. It consists of round-edged, cumulus-like bits of wood, clinging together almost cartoonishly, as if forming a figure constructed from thought bubbles. Cragg is keen to emphasize the handmade and intuitive aspects of his approach: Despite their scale and sheen, these pieces are not products of a large factory. 

The exhibition’s title makes the argument that sculptures are unusual. According to Cragg, our “expedient industrial production systems produce simple geometries—a world of boring and repetitive forms. Sculpture is the opposite of that.” In recent decades Cragg has shied away from assemblage as a way of drawing elements of the world into art. Rather, he uses new technologies to mold materialist investigations, deepening and renovating traditional notions of sculpture made from within. Subtle hints of nature and the human body anchor his abstractions. Situated on the grounds, the spindly yet monumental three-part bronze Points of View, 2013, seems both natural and unnatural. Is it meant to suggest the vortex of a tornado? Or perhaps a teetering twirl of muses? Neither representation nor abstraction, Cragg’s art takes us deeper into nature—that of both sculpture and the world. 

Sherman Sam