Ever since the 1970´s Tony Cragg has been engaged in a redefinition of what sculpture is. In the wake of Duchamp´s reday-mades and what Rosalind Krauss has described as the´”expanded field” of late modernist sculpture, Cragg began experimenting with found materials and the waste products of industrialism. Combing these into imagistic, pictorial compositions he was able to further expand the definition of sculpture, taking it in his own direction. His playful interferences with sculptural rhetoric undermined the gravitas traditionally associated with sculpture while giving it an additional contemporary significance. In works such as “Looking from the North”(1981), a map of Britain that was made from coloured rubbish assembled on the wall suggested the idea of looking at sculpture from a new direction, by viewing it as a picture as well as an object. The individual pieces of rubbish were used by Cragg as readymades and undermined the fetishised relationship between parts which was espoused in modernist sculpture in the 1960´s and 1970´s by Clement Greenberg and Anthony Carso. As well as questioning what sculpture is “Looking from the North” drew attention to the heterogeneous nature of ideas of nationhood, and as with much of his other work it subverted the prevalent ideological thinking behind Thatcher´s Britain.
In his new work from the 1990´s and 2000 Cragg continues to pose questions about the defination of sculpture but this now becomes a reflexive dialogue with the artist´s own body of work from the last thirty years. In this process Cragg has embarked upon a radical reconsideration of the type of pictorial and compositional unity he strove for in the past. What his earlier works suggested new ways of viewing and understanding sculpture, this was always achieved through a progress of subordinating the heterogeneous of disparate objects making up the internal parts of the work to predeterminded composition or plan. Either this was guaranteed by the use of figuration, or by the shape of the compositions, usually towers, rectangles or serpentine forms, or by uniting the objects through welding or drawing over their surfaces. Cragg´s present work takes this very process of grouping and assembling objects as its actual subject, internalising it within the artwork itself and dismantling its sense of internal coherence and completeness.
The reasons behind this reconsideration of the artwork´s form can be traced back to a statement made by the artist in the late 1980´s. Speaking about the defining feature of his sculptures and their particular visual quality Cragg stated, “They´re there and they want a dialouge on the basis of all the other things that are in the world, and not on the basis of a particular group of objects which one has called, in the past, sculpture”.
Cragg´s intention of establishing a dialogue between the viewer and things in the world by eschewing traditional ideas about sculpture has always been a motive behind his practice. But what he has come increasingly to feel is that the category of sculpture is inseparable from how he relates to objects in the world. In Cragg´s view the term “sculpture” has a relevance beyond the products and scope of artist, and so in establishing a dialouge with its own pictorial organisation his recent work also calls into question cultural attitudes and norms about the organisation of objects and things generally, both in material form and conceptually. This is reflected in the diverse set of references in Cragg´s recent work that range from modernist sculpture and the urban environment to Habitat-style display stands, laboratory apparatuses, organic forms and the body. However, while Cragg´s recent work has wide-ranging associations its primary engagement with the way in which objects are organised is with the tradition of sculpture as a means of ordering space. This has come about because of his increasing involvement in his work the question of scale and of the social and ideological implications of the sculptural tradition.
While Cragg´s sculptures are usually composed as single units they playfully subvert the traditional purpose and function of sculpture thataimed to provide a point of focus in a space, and thereby shape and even dominate its surroundings. In this respect, it is significant how the contoured outlines of Cragg´s series of “Stoneworks” frequently bear an uncanny affinity with R.A. Bertelli´s infamous “Continuous Profile of Mussolini” (1933). This bust exemplifies the connection between sculpture and its use as a means to command and dominate space. Bertelli cast Mussolini´s profile in the round so that in superhuman fashion the facist dictator surveys the compass of the visual field at once. In contrast to Bertelli´s bust, the contours of Cragg´s “Stoneworks” never remain stable. Instead, they constantly change shape with the effect that the sculpture look like stalagmites in process of metamorphosing or pieces of clay on a potter´s wheel spinning out of control. Rather than being oriented around strict vertical like Bertelli´s” Mussolini”, Cragg´s “Stoneworks” lean over at steep angels as if they might topple over at any minute. Indeed, in some instances they actually just collapse in a heap. Unlike Bertelli´s “Mussonlini”, the ability of Cragg´s “Stoneworks” to control their surroundings seems to be minimal: it is as if they are overtaken by a world that is moving too fast for them to keep up with. Sculpture as a tool of domination, Cragg affirms, is as remote to today as a stone megalith.
Whereas in the 1970´s and 1980´s Cragg´s sculptures were made up from disparate fragments and objects, they are now frequently composed as if different elements are compressed within an overall whole. Works such as “Tripod” (199) and “Big Head” (2000), from the series “Rational and Secretions”, exemplify this tendency within which a number of elements appear to combine or conjoin. Yet it is the very status of this linking which the works unsettle. The conspicuous seams running down “Big Head” and its numerous “secretions” and protuberances suggest the idea that the sculpture is composed from forms which were once seperate and have been packed together leaving an excess, or which were once whole and are now dissolving and coming apart. Similar entropic processes are hinted at in “Tripod”, but Cragg places pieces of fabric beneath the sculpture´s surface of carbon fibre which, like bandages, patch up and conceal the exact nature of the movement or changes occurring within. There is a sense of vulnerability to “Tripod” as if its forms are standing in a huddle with their backs to the viewer unsure whether to remain bound together or break apart and venture ourt.
As “Tripod” reveals, there is a playful sense of absurdit and self-parody in Cragg´s new work. This continues in the “Early Forms” series, although the overall feeling in this series are ones of defensiveness and aggression rather than vulnerability. The “Early Forms” are heavy, severe works in dark bronze composed from overlapping, twisting forms that wrap around and enclose an interior space or series of spaces. The combination of these forms with open seams running through the body of the works makes the sculptures reminiscent of helmets, which gives them a feeling of violence and foregrounds their “macho” monumental pretensions. In these sculptures Cragg still seeks to make object with a defined sense of interiority, but at the same time it is implied that space is something that is scooped or hollowed out rather than enclosed and occupied by the monument. In these sculptures this idea is further dramatised in the way that the interior is displaced onto a series of paritially open and disconnected elements, reminiscent of vessels and containers, which dissolve, blend and conjoin with each other. Together, they make a restless, ruptured whole at odds with their function as monumental sculptures even while they seem to be imbued with its forms and processes of manufacture and siting.
Whereas the “Early Forms” series remains largely within the parameters of the tradition of self-contained sculpture, the “Envelopes” series turns spaces and surfaces inside out. In this series a play is set up between, on the one hand, opaqueness and density and, on the other hand, tranparency and lightness. This is achieved through perforating the surfaces of rubber sheets and folding them so that they become both exterior planes and interal spaces (after which are cast in bronze). Additional tubes wind through the central masses of the works and at certain points break their surfaces; simulatneously phallic and vaginal in shape they suggest in some of the monumental sculptures like “Ferryman” (1997) a scenario of bodies copulating. References to torsos and organs persist in the smaller versions of the series within forms that are constantly destabilised by protuberances and unexpected twists and turns in shape. The sexual connotations of these works, together with their arbitrary changes in form, provide a metaphor of an exess within sculpture, itself -–which is evident throughout Cragg´s work. Cragg implies that in recognising its own limitations, contemporary sculptures is destabilised to such a point that the very category of sculpture dissolves. And yet, it is in this dissoulution that Cragg´s art is made, and supplied with the opportunity of revealing the connections between itself and other things in the world.
-Christopher Kool-Want, London 2000