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. I’m afraid the exhibition is over. Anyway, here’s part two…
David: Instead of the old Paul Klee adage of ‘going for a walk with a line’, Craig-Martin’s version might be ‘going to the gym with a line’ – what you end up with is very strong but robotic, and yet the paintings and the wall drawings still have the human hand in them. They aspire to the condition of machine-made things – a very Modernist conceit – but they are not. They are fascinatingly three dimensional when you view the paintings from a glancing angle – they reminded me of the Nazca lines in Peru. They are slight vertical disturbances on an otherwise flat surface and they have a circuit like quality – they are not lines that are easily interrupted or changed.
When I first saw the show though it was on a very damp rainy day and the humidity in the gallery caused some of the black acrylic tape in the wall drawing (in the last pic) to peel off. A gallery assistant in surgical gloves was reverently smoothing it back. This might have been supposed to remain hidden, this sort of performance aspect, but it was revealing of the human qualities of the line and its scale and how the hand had made it. It caused me also to look much more closely at the lines. The tape is very flexible but it does have trouble with some of the tight corners MCM asks of it, bunching up and slightly lifting off the surface and there are places where the hand of the gallery assistant did not quite join the supposedly continuous line exactly so that it reminded me of a medieval engraving.
The show’s title is Transience – and some interviews suggest it is just about evolution of electronic product design. This is surely disingenuous. In the interview I read Craig-Martin pretends to be amazed at the obsolescence of the items in his work. He must have been aware of it even though he could’t predict the future, but is his choice of subject matter simply a case of him painting the first things he saw or are other factors in play?
Richard: I don’t think the objects are just the first things he saw – there is no kitsch – everything depicted is in some way functional. And in some way everyday. These are the objects that surround us in our daily lives. I think it’s also important to MCM that what he paints is contemporary at the time of painting; these are all things that (for MCM) were in the “now”. One of the things I get from looking at these works is a sense that MCM is examining the objects, interrogating them almost – trying to show us the mystery at their heart. Their oddness, their alien nature. The blanker the object, the stronger the effect for me – the credit card being a good example.
David: The credit card is a great example and an inspired choice of subject because our relationship with it is so abstract. Although we handle it, its value is defined by the abstract concept of money. We know how to use it, but it is somehow not of our world. Almost in a religious sense. I don’t think Craig-Martin is suggesting that we should worship money or material things but perhaps he is suggesting we do, and the shift into unnatural colour in his paintings strips away the connection we normally take for granted and we can see the idol of materialism as just so many ephemeral plastic shapes. It is clever to use colour in this way, but I think there is a price to pay – it makes the paintings very hard on the eye!
Yes, the colour is striking. Really like being hit in the face almost. The central room is painted in a vivid Teal (see pic)
a colour Craig-Martin seems to like a lot. The predominant colour scheme is secondary colours and black with few primaries. Where present they will be clashing, as in the red and pink of the credit card. There are one or two moodier olive and maroon combinations that veer toward the tertiary spectrum. But basically he is using the colours of anoraks – orange, teal, cerise – it was like walking round Snow & Rock to be honest. They are commercial colours that have not been big in the history of art, partly because they feel very synthetic. I am pretty sure that orange teal and magenta do not occur together in nature and the flat unmodulated nature of his paintings accentuates this plastic quality.
I was unsure also about extending the colour onto the walls as well as the paintings. Should art end at the edge of the canvas? Or in MCM’s case aluminium mounted on a small frame whose dimensions imitate a canvas? It was intruding on the headspace of the viewer. It was not a setting for the painting- it felt immersive, almost church like and slightly oppressive. In that way it was almost like the Rothko room at the Tate. If you spend long enough in it your eyes will see the complementary colour. Have your eyes recovered?
To be continued…
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