Is a glass of water just a glass of water? Consider it for a fraction of a second and suddenly the glass of water carries a lot of Kosuthian baggage—the mind attaches a label to it, compares it to an ideal, then judges its function, and its value changes. Deconstruct the contextual outcome of that mental layering, and the glass of water not only offers multiple meanings but could become something else entirely. If you’re the seminal artist Michael Craig-Martin, that glass of water is an oak tree.
Dublin-born Craig-Martin earned his BA and MFA at Yale (while it was still under Albers’ influence) and then left for England in 1968, where he has lived and worked ever since. Like Baldessari at CalArts in the late 1970s, he is credited with mentoring a generation of superartists to come out of Goldsmiths in the 1980s. Predisposed to American systems of minimalism and conceptual art, his early autonomous sculptures are stripped-down, idea-laden gestures. Of this early work, he is best known for An Oak Tree (1973), where he transubstantiates a glass of water using a conceptual text. By the late 1970s, he felt limited with the closed-ended nature of his work and started experimenting in “drawings that had no style.” The resulting line drawings depicting universally familiar objects in three-fourths perspective became his signature style. Once Craig-Martin draws an object, the image becomes the archetype for all future uses of that object. There are no alternative perspectives, versions, or updates to the drawing. Take his headphones image, for example. Sony may have updated them since the release of the original Walkman, but the Craig-Martin image stays the same. When used, the image is merely scaled up and/or layered over other drawn objects. Originally executed in tape applied directly to the wall, these images have also been done in neon, aluminum, painted steel, household paint, as well as the more traditional practice of acrylic on canvas.
For his Objects of our Time show at Alan Cristea Gallery, Craig-Martin has created editions of screen prints, etchings, and LED light boxes. The imagery seamlessly translates to each of the mediums used, and the result not only seems appropriate, but is also just plain sexy. The show revolves around three series of editions, Objects of our Times (2014), Art & Design (2012), and The Catalan Suite I & II (2013). In an antithesis to his well-known multilayer constructs, most of the prints feature isolated images floating in a sea of radiant color. Craig-Martin’s avoidance of a primary color palette (since the introduction of color into his work in the 1990s) is not purely an aesthetic choice; as the consummate conceptualist, he is fully aware that all colors have implicit meaning, and that standard primary colors come loaded with the most visual signifiers. When used, they highlight difference, which as a happy byproduct neutralizes the color’s inherent layers of embedded meaning.
Objects of our Times is a series of twelve screen-printed images of everyday objects. Framed in vacuum-formed clear plastic and hung in a grid, four across and three deep, the prints with roughly ten centimeters (four inches) of separation between them have a unified hyper-presence about them. The deconstructed line and non-native color choices push each of the depicted objects beyond simple iconographic status. Being stripped down and then decorated up, the image can only pretend to be a reference point to the original. This isn’t because it cannot be traced to the original, but because the reference points that are used to construct the image are now so far removed that they no longer have any relation to the original. So instead of physically transubstantiating, these objects do so contextually.
The Art & Design series embeds the same strategy as Objects but takes it a step further by pairing an art object with a designer chair. A departure from the ordinary, the depicted objects are iconographic works in and of themselves, and play the art-reverential card to the fullest. On the flip side, the works in Catalan Suite I & II take a step back. Utilizing the medium of etching, the familiar images of the corkscrew, folded shirt, padlock, iPhone, soup can, and sofa are gray-scaled and left with only a minimal highlight of one of Craig-Martin signature colors. Traditionally framed, the series takes on a ghostly feel that is just as visually engaging as the rest of the show.
Very few of the early conceptual artists have gracefully transitioned their closed-system object making to a scalable practice. The brilliance of Michael Craig-Martin’s post-discrete-object making is that since the late 1970s, he put in place a sound conceptual base that automatically creates a context for every new piece and this is succinctly illustrated with the work on offer at Alan Cristea. The beauty of this framework is that it gives the artist license to visually play freely and offers the viewer a process to enjoy all the same.
Michael Craig-Martin: Objects of our Time is on view at Alan Cristea Gallery (34 Cork Street, London) through May 2, 2014.