Tony Cragg, in profile

April 17, 2010

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at Lisson Gallery, which has an exhibition of recent work by the British sculptor Tony Cragg. The works on view are astounding from the point of view of fabrication. Like a handful of other contemporary sculptors in the UK – Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor and Richard Deacon spring to mind – Cragg has become a master of production values. He moves with seeming effortlessness from material to material, creating similar forms in stainless steel, resin, stone, and plywood. Here are two works from the Lisson show, one in steel and one in wood.

Cragg’s sculptures remind me of Chinese ‘scholar’s rocks’ – stones that are found in nature but admired for their aesthetic qualities. Such objects occupy a sort of middle ground between the natural and the artificial; their forms are ‘found’ out there in the world, but we are free to appreciate them as if they were works of art. Here is another of Cragg’s sculptures (at left) compared with a Chinese rock or lingbi.

Though they may look like they were made by some form of rapid prototyping, the sculptures are far too big for that. All are made through direct carving or casting, either by his own studio or a team of hired craftspeople. It’s pretty amazing stuff, given the scale and perfection of finish, and it made me think about how Cragg gets to the finished form. According to Lisson Gallery’s curator Greg Hilty, the artist does use some computer modeling to get to the final form, but he mostly relies on old-fashioned sketching and craftsmanship. The shapes are mostly made by stacking up cut-out shapes in plywood, which are glued together and grinded smooth. The resulting form can then be cast or replicated through carving in another material (not unlike the 1960s stack-laminated furniture of Wendell Castle). At left is a detail that shows the construction of one of Cragg’s wood sculptures.

Cragg’s process is a kind of free drawing in three dimensions. I say this because he retains a very strong sense of two-dimensional line, or profile. This is most obvious in a series of works Cragg made a few years back featuring the image of faces, which seem to arise almost accidentally from the dynamic whirl of the form.

Cragg is an accomplished writer, too, and he has addressed the relationship between sculpture and drawing as follows:

Sculpture is certainly not utilitarian, but it does explain, put into perspective, investigate and explore concrete reality. And here it has something like a function. Drawing is quite different. It never challenges a real situation. Drawing enters a kind of dream world, a world that is already elsewhere.

This idea of drawing as an almost-private world, in which forms can be generated free from the demands of ‘real’ materiality, is very evident in Cragg’s own sketches. They seem intended to capture pure energy, or invent new forms through some automatic means (like the random overlap of different vessel forms).


This leads me to the thought that drawing functions a little bit like nature itself for Cragg. Like the scholar’s rocks I mentioned above, his sculptures inhabit a middle ground, somewhere between the ‘dream world’ of the pure line drawing, and the artificial qualities of the material in which the form is realized.

Way back at the beginning of his career, Cragg did a simple but very suggestive thing. He tossed a rope straight up into the sky, and had a photo taken of the resulting ‘drawing’.

This charming, even joyful bit of conceptual art seems to me a perfect metaphor for Cragg’s attitude to draftsmanship. For him, drawings mean artistic freedom; again like nature, they’re a place to discover new forms. And this means that the more a line is left to chance, the better. A random scrawl of rope in mid-air may not seem like much. But as Cragg himself might put it, art is all about following a line of thinking, wherever it might lead.

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