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Review: Tony Cragg's Sculptures at the Nasher
by Jerome Weeks 13 Sep 2011

Turner Prize-winning British artist Tony Cragg calls himself a materialist – for the ways he’s expanded sculpture’s vocabulary with modern materials and turned those materials inside-out. The Nasher exhibition is a sinuous swirl of stone, wood, metal and plastic.


Tony Cragg, Outspan, 2008, painted bronze

The Nasher Sculpture Center is offering the first museum exhibition of the works of Turner Prize-winning British sculptor Tony Cragg, the first in the United States in 20 years. Perhaps that’s why the 30-or-so works in Tony Cragg: Seeing Things emphasize the artist’s post-2000 efforts, not the mixed-media-ish mosaics that first established him in England in the 1980s. The works that dominate here are the twisty, rippling forms (above, Outspan) and the corkscrewing columns that look like the rock spires in a Roadrunner cartoon — the kinds of things he’s best known for in America  In fact, just across the Woodall Rogers from the Nasher, outside Rosewood Court, is perhaps downtown Dallas’ best piece of outdoor sculpture, Cragg’s Line of Thought, very much in this later, curvilinear style.

The Nasher selection, curated by Jed Morse, makes Cragg’s career seem more of a piece than perhaps it really has been, a working-out of a single set of ideas about surface, shape, materials and structure. Seeing Things does feature a few of his earlier, industrial-product assemblages. These appear almost like footnotes at the back or in the basement gallery– notably Eroded Landscape (1998), a dense and handsome stacking of frosted-glass vases and bottles (below)  and Congregation, his 1999 porcupine of a work, with a boat, oars, crate and chair all skewered with thousands of eye hooks.

Considering the precision and polish of Cragg’s later works, Congregation with its prickly-Velcro surface is the anomaly here. Seeing Things also doesn’t contain any representatives of the colorful, plastic-piece, wall mosaics that once got Cragg lumped, on the painter side, with the broken plates of Julian Schabel. This was Cragg expanding sculpture’s material vocabulary beyond the traditional bronzes and marbles; he pursued a found-object, modern-material aesthetic.

But Cragg has stepped well beyond that, both to other sources for shapes (the human profiles and biomorphic forms in his layered columns) and to putting these shapes through more extreme transformations.

Paradoxically, this has made his work grander, bolder, more finished, more sensual — and, to a degree, more classic, more traditional. One can see Modernist predecessors like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth or Isamu Noguchi in a 2010 work like Mixed Feelings (right), albeit it’s a Hepworth or Moore that’s been tripled and quadrupled in its many lumps and curves. It’s this ‘second career’ that the Nasher showcases in striking fashion.

As a result, we encounter the glass shapes Cragg first employed in Eroded Landscape and Glass Instruments (1987) — only after we encounter how he re-thought them a decade later. I”m not arguing for a more chronological display, only explaining how Seeing Things may cause you to turn back and re-think what you just saw. As a young man, Cragg was employed as a lab technician in a rubber research plant, and the shapes of beakers, boiling flasks and bottles frequently re-emerge in such works as Outspan. Check out the lower right of Outspan where the shape “begins’ — it’s what looks like a plastic quart-of-oil container, upside-down on its spout. Then follow it through the arcs and twists: Outspan is a painted bronze realization of the neon swooshes that a light saber makes as it cuts the air in Star Wars.

But while Cragg’s early works were primarily about material, these later ones are about surface and structure — he could just as easily switch the materials among these later sculptures, substituting wood for bronze. As he told the dinner guests Saturday evening at the Nasher, he wanted to show viewers the sculpture inside the sculpture. That is, so much of the world is essentially invisible to us — photons, viruses, etc. — and like some cellular biologist, he wants to show us those internal shapes and structures. So, Cragg said with a laugh, he realized he had to make holes in his works.

Which explains his mesh-like Ferryman series (right) as well as some of his wooden pieces (See You, left). These replicate the which-is-which, foreground-or-subject tension in abstract paintings. With these works, skin and skeleton, the inside and the outside, curl back and forth, the one becoming the other like a Mobius strip.

This play of inside-outside holds true with Outspan and other sinuous forms like Sinbad. Each work looks extruded but it’s also slotted (Outspan is like an oyster cracked open, while Sinbad is a camshaft that’s come slightly apart). The outer shell is fissured, pivoted, inverted; what is solid is hollow.

Curiously, these kinds of “opened” shapes are completely abandoned for Cragg’s billowing columns. These often are impressively monolithic and solid, even as they seem like they’ve been centrifuged into towering windstorms. With his intricately worked-out curves in steel, stone or plywood, Cragg stretches, pushes, twirls his materials to their outer limits.  If any sculptures ever displayed a sense of time — the time needed to circle the work to see all the computer-graphed eddies and bulges — it’s these. Human profiles emerge, distort and slide away — they’re like anamorphic versions of Renato Bertelli’s famous rotating Mussolini bust.

Among these, the layered, laminated-wood pieces convey another, solidified sense of time — it’s as if we’re looking at geological strata in a weathered outcropping in Monument Valley. The sculpture below is actually called Elbow (2008), yet if anything, it evokes  an “Eroded Landscape” — as if the glassware in that earlier sculpture had been wind-blasted in a jet tunnel.

All of these vortexes and spirals — beautiful but relentlessly rippling — can make one yearn for something right-angled and stable. Cragg calls himself a materialist, yet with these later works he actually makes the sculptural world’s most solid, conventional media – stone, steel, wood — turn liquid and blurry. One half-expects some of these pieces — if they were ever touched — to vaporize, dissolve or turn into sand.

These days, Cragg is de-materializing his materials.