At the opening of his new exhibition, Transience, at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Michael Craig-Martin gave a tour of the gallery and answered questions. He is a warm, humorous presence, unpretentious, a tremendous communicator, and the more he talked the more depth and interest and variation and meaning his paintings acquired.
I was lucky enough to be there and these are my notes of what he said. (This post is twinned with my review of the show.)
In 1978 Craig-Martin began to do black and white drawings on walls, no colour involved, just outlines. He emphasised that the more you persist with something in art, the more likely you are to find interest and depth in an approach and so it was with these simple line drawings of everyday objects – he began to see more and more possibilities. When he started doing these line drawings as a form of experiment in the 1980s he had no idea it would turn into ‘a life’s work’, and end up defining him and his style…
He stopped painting in the 1980s for several years, but when he returned to it in the 1990s, he began by painting entire rooms and then sequences of rooms. He found that integrating the earlier line drawings onto coloured walls created a surprising variety of effects. Thus the thirty or so pieces in this exhibition explore the permutations and, once you start looking closely, you realise there are significant differences between:
- Objects drawn directly onto the wall – the two big examples here from 1981, Stack and Vertigo
- Objects which are transparent – Untitled (Self portrait)
- Objects which are solidly coloured – Untitled (Lightbulb)
- Objects of which only some details are coloured in – Apple 17 inch PowerBook G4
- Objects which are perfectly framed within the canvas – Cassette
- Objects which are cut off – Untitled (watch fragment)
- Multiple objects which are solid, inhabiting a three dimensional space – Eye of the Storm
- A mix of the above – Biding Time (magenta)
As you walk around the show, you begin to realise the large number of permutations this apparently ‘simple’ approach permits.
Craig-Martin said he was ‘interested in what these objects allow me to do in the language of image making.’ So they are, among other things, exercises and experiments in image making. Explorations. (Although the works are very obviously paintings, I was struck how Craig-Martin referred to them consistently as ‘drawings’.)
As to the subject matter of the drawings, he said he started off drawing what was around him – shoes, a garden fork, a book. But one of the things that doing this for over thirty years slowly made clear is how the nature of ‘everyday’ objects has changed significantly.
For a start, most objects these days are branded, which is thought-provoking…
More obvious is the way many of the technological objects have become obsolete. Someone asked why all the drawings are of technological subjects (there are only two which aren’t – an image of a McDonalds pack of fries and a trainer). He explained that the works on show have been selected precisely to highlight the changes in the world of technology over the period of their creation, the period from the early 1980s to the present day which broadly covers the massive change from the analogue to digital technology.
Hence the title of the show – Transience. And hence one of the earliest pieces is a massive painting of a portable analogue TV – Untitled (television) 1989 – a product which no longer exists. Without intending it, Craig-Martin’s oeuvre has turned into a sort of memento mori of vanished objects, vanished lifestyles, vanished worlds…
He wants the moment of viewing the object to be intense, to be memorable, he wants the painting to command the space. That’s why the colours are so strong. He explained that, although computers can generate millions of colours there are in fact only ten key ones. Do his colours have a special name or are they a certain type? No. He only uses colours with a name: red, yellow, pink, magenta.
So they are the simple obvious colours, he just ensures that his use of them is pure, intense and deep. The canvas is completely covered in multiple layers with no shading, no perspective or aspect. It is as rich and as vibrant as can be.
The result is a particularly powerful insight: he is interested in creating a tension between the stability of the drawings and the intensity of the colour applied to it. This helps to explain the paintings’ strange hypnotic power. Order and passion. Stasis and excitement.
The vast central room is painted deep green. Other walls are white or pink. But the opening couple of rooms are covered in a Craig-Martin wallpaper created specially for the show (you can see it in the photo above). He pointed out two interesting features of the wallpaper:
- It is seamless. He discovered a firm in Austria which creates wallpaper designed for specific environments which is run off to the required size and shape and not in sections or pieces.
- The characteristic outlines of the objects depicted do not overlap. I’d never have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out, but they all touch each other as if they are balanced in an incredibly precarious construction. Fragility. Evanescence.
The room layout of the newly refurbished Serpentine galleries is tremendously symmetrical. Craig-Martin thinks he’s never worked in such a symmetrical building. To suit the space the works themselves are carefully balanced and Craig-Martin likes the way, among other things, this draws attention to the huge central room, in which hangs the largest work in the show, Eye of the Storm (2003) over three metres tall by 2.8 metres wide, and a kaleidoscopic summary of objects and colours.
Narrative and value
He ascribes no value to the artefacts in his drawings. They aren’t particularly favourite objects or chosen for any special reasons. He isn’t an especial fan of industrial design promoting this or that look or style. He is merely a ‘witness’ of the objects in the world around him.
The way technologies have become obsolete has created a narrative of time and change which he never intended when he started. The possibility of something like a show titled Transience only slowly emerged from the drift of time.
And, at the end of the tour, Michael was quick to point out that the paintings need no narrative because human beings pack everything they see or do or hear with meaning and narrative. The gallery is a clean open space in which each of the visitors’ lives, histories, stories, memories and intentions jostle and brim.
(I asked him why all of the pieces are labeled Untitled but then have brackets after describing what they depict eg Untitled (Chips), Untitled (battery), Untitled (bulb). He explained they are all untitled precisely to avoid creating assumptions, to keep them as free from connotation as possible. Yes, but why then give them titles in brackets? Well, he replied with a big smile, we have to be able to tell them apart somehow 🙂
Outside the gallery is a sculpture of a light bulb, nearly 4 metres high, cast in powder-coated steel, and in Craig-Martin’s favourite magenta. If you stand in the right place you can make it frame nearby Kensington Palace. In his tour Craig-Martin offered a casual insight which clarified it when he said, it isn’t a sculpture of a lightbulb. It is a sculpture of a drawing of a lightbulb.
This exhibition is FREE. It is big and bright and beautiful, the perfect antidote to the dark, wet winter. Go and see it.
- Transience by Michael Craig-Martin continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 14 February 2016