5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. The exhibition ends today.
David: I was extremely keen to see this show, but my expectations of it were uncertain: I was familiar with Michael Craig-Martin’s work but I had never seen a large body of it together. To some extent I am still ambivalent, but I am glad to have something solid to be ambivalent about. I was very impressed with a wall drawing of a coffee cup that was in the R.A. summer show, but I have also been less impressed by some things he has said and slightly put off by his role as the midwife of Goldsmiths’ YBA talent factory. Did you have any preconceptions about the show?
Richard: Yes, I was really glad you suggested this show, because I didn’t have a fixed idea of Michael Craig-Martin. I knew about his 1973 work , An Oak Tree, and the fact it is acknowledged as an important conceptual work. It’s a glass of water on a wall-mounted glass shelf accompanied by a short text; for more information go here: https://offthewalls.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/an-oak-tree-michael-craig-martin/. Apart from that I had seen a few of his wall drawings, sat in front of him at a showing of a Bruce Nauman clown video at D’Offay’s (he laughed all the way through), and read an interview with him and Damien Hirst at the height of the YBA frenzy. So I came to this show wanting to find out more. At the moment, I feel irritated by the show, which is often a good sign for me…
The first image in the exhibition is Untitled (xbox control), 2014. What do you think it tells us about Michael Craig Martin?
David: It is held together by its own contradictions. It is such a considered image, it is almost hard to react to it or to deduce anything about the artist from it. Some artists go to great trouble to try to remove themselves from their art. And yet it is a painting. I don’t know the detail of the process, but it was made by a skilled hand rather than by a machine.
It seems to take the term ‘plastic arts’ very literally: it is an image of a mass market consumer object, a plastic object rendered in a plastic paint. So I could hardly call it conceptual. But his reputation suggests that he is from a place that distrusts objects, especially art objects. This is a post-Warholian, post-Duchampian art object. It distrusts itself in order to sell itself. The more Craig-Martin believes in it, the more one suspects he is undercutting something else. It is the undercutting that he believes in.
The view chosen is full frontal, the object is divorced from its context but still ultimately recognisable. Perspective is absent, it’s like an orthographic or a design view. Centred in frame, depicted on a plain background in flat colour – all that remains is the shapes. All this give is an iconic, devotional quality.
The shapes are very strong – uniquely of our time. Craig-Martin clearly has a great sensitivity to the power of line. He once said dismissively that drawing was ‘a trick with a pencil’. I read this remark out of context and thought it was infuriating but now his work seems to me like drawing in its purest form. Would you agree with that?
Richard: Yes, I would. And drawing is fundamental to every work in the show. The paintings and wall drawings are diagrammatic – each one lays bare the outlines of an object’s most important features – what we see is a pared-down, instantly recognisable outline of an everyday object. They remind me of the first page you see in an instruction manual. They are removed from context in the same way. And I think your iconic statement is spot-on. At first I thought the “objects” were removed from context so that we could more easily contemplate them, but MCM’s use of colour causes interference. These are not straightforward representations, because the colour puts a spin on them. And the lines are not as perfect as they first appear…so are we supposed to infer some kind of message from them?
To be continued…
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This post is dedicated to George Weaver. She was a wonder. I will miss her.
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