Transience by Michael Craig-Martin @ the Serpentine Gallery

Michael Craig-Martin was born in Ireland in 1941. He studied in New York and Paris before moving to London in 1966. Through the early 1970s he made many conceptual works but he also began experimenting with ‘simple’ line drawings of everyday objects. In the early 1980s he experimented with drawing the cartoonish technical outline of objects directly on walls, before dropping painting altogether to do conceptual work.

In the 1990s he returned to the line drawings, experimenting with the use of colour and his style crystallised into the creation of large, highly stylised line drawings of everyday objects, the designs and backgrounds filled with bright flat primary colours. No light or shade. No perspective or depth. The thing itself, in plain view, with no secrets, like a designer’s, a draughtsman’s, diagram.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (light bulb) 2014 Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (light bulb) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin

The Serpentine Galleries are half a mile north of the Science and Natural History Museums, just into Hyde Park. They have been closed for refurbishment are re-opening with Transience, a show of 30 or so prime examples of this, Craig-Martin’s late style. It is the first solo show of Craig-Martin’s work in a London public institution since 1989 and brings together works from 1981 to 2015.

(This post is twinned with my account of the artist’s tour around the exhibition at the press launch.)

Platonic ideals

Each work depicts one object. The object is, in general, an example of the devices and accessories associated with our increasingly technological way of life: a laptop, a games consoles, a black-and-white television, a lightbulb, a mobile phone, pair of headphones and so on.

They exist in an ideal world of forms, the forms which the Greek philosopher Plato thought existed in the mind of God, and of which everything in this, our ‘fallen’ world, were mere copies and – if humans made works of art about them, copies of copies of copies.

Our world is full of copies of Craig-Martin’s perfect objects. Poor copies, shabby copies, used copies, broken copies. He offers us the source, the original template, restored to vibrant but silent perfection.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (headphones medium) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (headphones medium) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 122 x 122cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

The joy of design

The most immediate impression is how big the paintings are. The biggest are 4 or 5 metres high. Completely absorbing. Paintings to be hypnotised by.

Then how bright and bold and unhesitant the colours are, none of the murk or gloom, none of the expressive splashes or splats or writhing splurges with a lot of modern art, say, Pollock or Cy Twombly. They are fantastically restrained. Self-contained. The colour, like the good king’s snow, is deep and crisp and even. And very beautiful.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (xbox control) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 200 x 200 cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (xbox control) (2014) Acrylic on aluminium 200 x 200 cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Celebration of the everyday

Craig-Martin has reproduced the everyday artefacts of his time. One obvious result is that the time in question passes and is soon ten, twenty, thirty years ago. And then History. And the objects we were once so familiar with become obsolete.

Thus the works are mementi mori in the classic European tradition, reminders that tempus fugit. In fact, in one way, their perfection is ironic.

In Keith Douglas’s tremendous Second World War poem, Vergissmeinnicht, the poet compares the decayed corpse of the dead German with the shiny perfection of the Panzer tank it is trapped in:

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

‘Mocked at by his own equipment’.

We may smile indulgently at these relics of a fast-receding past – tape cassettes ha ha ha – but it is we that are ageing and decaying, and the tape cassette remains permanently new in the heaven of its perfection.

Michael Craig-Martin Cassette (2002) Acrylic on canvas 289.6 x 208.3cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Michael Craig-Martin Cassette (2002) Acrylic on canvas 289.6 x 208.3cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

In a very obvious but completely convincing way, Craig-Martin’s work transforms the world by delivering it to us in perfect form. As Sir Philip Sidney pointed out in his Defense of Poesy (1583):

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied on any such subjugation, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention doeth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than nature brings forth, or quite anew… Nature’s world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

The designers who conceived, the manufacturers who produced, the consumers who used, broke and threw away these wonderful implements, are here superseded by a heaven of consumer objects, restored to their rightful place, at the centre of our culture, fit recipients of our worship.

A perfect and perfected style

The objects have a finality, a wonderful completeness. There is nothing more to say. They are so perfectly encapsulated in Craig-Martin’s formulations. And embalmed in these immaculate reproductions. The way they sit there, blank and mute, reminded me of a great poem about the secret lives of objects by a contemporary of Craig-Martin’s, the (Northern) Irish poet, Derek Mahon – The Mute Phenomena.

Michael Craig-Martin Biding Time (magenta) (2004) Acrylic on aluminium panel 243.8 x 182.9cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

Michael Craig-Martin Biding Time (magenta) (2004) Acrylic on aluminium panel 243.8 x 182.9cm © Michael-Craig Martin. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

What lost civilisation do these beautiful, these magical objects bespeak? Is their collocation in these bright  surfaces the result of some lost religion? Did their viewers bow down before artefacts so perfect in their design and function, so immaculately conceived, so perfectly portrayed?

They should have. And here in the Serpentine Gallery – they can.

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  1. Products for Organising by Simon Denny @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery | Books & Boots

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