Over the course of his career, Craig-Martin’s subject matter has been both varied and expansive. In the 1970s, his fixation was on the conceptual; avid followers will remember ‘An Oak Tree’, in which Craig-Martin set a glass of water on a shelf and claimed to have transformed it, in the manner that transubstantiation transforms a wafer into the body of Christ at communion. ‘An Oak Tree’, when displayed, is accompanied by a small plaque, offering some explanation of the artist’s motivations and philosophical considerations in the form of a ‘Q and A’, (just as much part of the work as the glass and shelf):
Michael Craig-Martin at Alan Cristea
What’s ‘worth’ memorialising through art? Throughout Western history, the criteria have expanded from Saints and myth, to landscapes and people, to abstract shapes and back again. Now, all bets are off – no subject is out of bounds, and we’re much the better for it. Still unusual, though, is the immortalisation of everyday objects, as per Michael Craig-Martin.
What I've done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
To begin with, could you describe this work?
Yes, of course. What I've done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size ...
Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
No. It's not a symbol. I've changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
It looks like a glass of water.
Of course it does. I didn't change its appearance. But it's not a glass of water, it's an oak tree.
Craig-Martin has ostensibly moved away from this line of enquiry, recently turning to more conventional means of representation and adopting distinctly recognisable subjects. The spirit of play, however, and the magical logic of the ready-made, are still present in his latest work. At Alan Cristea, Craig-Martin is displaying new prints and drawings – of a cone of chips; a corkscrew; a laptop; a trainer shoe; a toaster. As well as looking like the best advert you’ve ever seen for any of the objects – propaganda for fried potatoes, a slick campaign for opening bottles of wine – the images represent the essence of the item depicted. That’s easy to say, but harder to get one’s head around; Craig-Martin himself describes his style as ‘styleless’, and there’s something about his lightness of touch and lack of mediation which allows these representations to feel practically platonic. The perfect computer, the ideal cassette tape – like hieroglyphs, the artist’s representations function as a shorthand for objects we see every day and yet encounter for the first time, sincerely, through his work. It’s an evolution of the ready-made: taking objects and boiling them down to concepts before representing what is left.
It’s an evolution of the ready-made: taking objects and boiling them down to concepts before representing what is left.
Then and Now, 2017, is a series in which the artist has superimposed eight new drawings onto their pre-existing counterparts: the Spotify logo sits upon a plastic tape, an iPhone upon a rotary. Although precedence is given to the ‘new’, whose outlines take the foreground over those of the ‘old’, the lines of each form a kind of harmonious super-drawing. The images are not ‘filled in’ – rather, they’re formed of delicate lines (black for today’s version and red for yesterday’s), weightless rather than solid. There’s no denying the strength of composition, in and of itself; these collages allow us to see our history, and understand the objects we use on a daily basis, as concepts – they transform from ephemera to abstract nouns before our eyes. Cassette/Spotify could stand for Music, phone/iPhone for Communication, Book/Kindle for Learning, and so forth. There’s a calm focus on utility, and a kind of meditative sociological bent in Craig-Martin; people are never represented, but we’re all implied by the objects themselves who are both waiting for us to use them and existent in a perfect stasis without our intervention.
The ghost of the ready-made emerges again with Craig-Martin’s series of famous buildings and their corresponding floorplans – a sort of blueprint in reverse, taking a design we all recognise as subject for the artist’s own process. Architecture is an artistic medium we’re surrounded by, but unaccustomed to seeing represented in two dimensions and in the same context as a still-life. Displayed alongside the corkscrews and the trainers, these buildings are refigured as objects: created for our use and pleasure, these structures need us just as much as we need them. What is the Guggenheim with no visitors? What is a corkscrew with no hand to screw it into a cork? If a tree falls, etc., etc.
What is the Guggenheim with no visitors? What is a corkscrew with no hand to screw it into a cork?
Craig-Martin’s recent practice is more than an invitation to view our quotidian experiences in a new light (although, to be frank, he does make them look great). Rather, it’s an essay on object-hood in relation to humanity. He represents the functional via a medium which renders it useless, nudging us to consider our place in the equation: as viewer, user, agent and subject. There’s a lot packed into those little prints.
By Emily Watkins.