Michael Craig-Martin at Muzeum Sztuki Łódź (1994)
| 18 February 2010
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In a show at the Rowan Gallery in London in 1978, Michael Craig-Martin made a series of drawings made with black and/or red adhesive tape fixed directly to the walls. One of these works, Untitled (book, chair, table, filing cabinet, ladder, ironing board) (1978), features a series of everyday artefacts arranged in perspective space, with an open book in the foreground; a cluster with a chair drawn up to a round table, behind which is a filing cabinet with open open drawer, behind which is a ladder; and in the background, an ironing board. By simply providing such a description of the content of this drawing, some its problems or paradoxes come to the surface. The book in the foreground is drawn larger than the other objects, and is located close to the floor. The ironing board in the background is drawn smaller than the cluster of objects in the centre, and is positioned high on the wall. These are ordinary techniques associated with perspective that the modern Western viewer is very familiar with.
Furthermore, the objects themselves are well-known: even as drawings, they seem to be ready for use. Neither the style of the drawing nor its lack of marks indicate any artistic author. The figures seem to be anonymously generated, part of the public domain (no ownership being equivalent to their ubiquity). It is possible that the viewer already has the images in his own mind or imagination. Yet the exaggerated presence of the drawing on the gallery wall makes the viewer aware of the artificiality and the arbitrariness of its (and his) conventionalized models of presentation, of picturing. Line Drawings are a variety of primary pictures. Everybody can understand them, and most can make them. In subsequent drawings by Michael Craig-Martin, such as Wall Drawing III-A (1990), the common traits or models of drawing––delineation and its suggestive opacity or transparency; shifts of scale––are frequently turned upon each other. The coherence of the drawings for the viewer is totally dependent upon the dismantling of known visual models which have themselves allowed the construction of the conundrums before his view. Only this way can the contradictory (yet familiar) models that have been brought together be reconciled. The drawing then loses its primariness, its transparency, and becomes again a complex of ideas which reside in the culture, tradition or language of the viewer. The tension of these drawings arises from their physical and spatial resistance to their disappearance even as complex pictures: that narcissistic gratification that the viewer might have before something he can recognize, comprehend and possess.
The suggested transparency of the line drawing was extended by Michael Craig-Martin in works that both made drawing physical and involved objects in their picturing schema. Side Step (1987) looks at first like a drawing of a ladder that incorporates a picture of itself within its midst. The lines of the drawing are not, however, applied to the wall, but float away from it: they are made in perfect thin sections of painted steel, paradoxically exaggerating both the disembodied character of the drawing and its status as object. This drawing is interrupted by an aluminium-sectioned frame, in which is bound a section of a real aluminium step-ladder. The angle of the step ladder follows the angle of the drawing: however, the latter is determined by its projection (its convention), while the former, if stripped of its context, would be completely arbitrary. The fragment that is cropped within its frame is taken to be a literal fragment, with the remainder of the real ladder being obscured, represented by the complete drawing that surrounds it (here representation can be taken as surrogate, as sign for that which is absent). However, it is clear that the fragment of ladder is also to be taken as a pictorial fragment, a picture superimposed on an unframed reality, the drawing of the ladder, effecting a further reversal of real and represented.
Although the position of this framed element might be seen as an attempt to reconcile the distance between the represented and the real, both real and represented are demonstrated to be completely unstable. The reconciliation, the logical deduction, the push for normalisation and completeness yields only uncertainty. A completely circular reversal has been proposed, in which both ladder as drawing and ladder as ladder are suspended in a confused space of the viewer’s belief in their representational fictions.
With both the real and the represented suspended in a fictional space where they are arbitrary and interchangable, the space of the real becomes available for imaginative intervention, and the distance that is normally associated with abstraction and representation is breached. The work made by Michael Craig-Martin in the 1990s has used painting in acknowledgment of its tradition as the place where the real and its counterparts meet. These paintings have made themselves appear as objects; as fields or frames for drawings; as fields or supports for objects; as surfaces for painting, as supports for interiors. Of course, in all cases, none of these terms finds stability. In Mirror Painting (Black Painting/White Painting) (1991), a person-sized painting is before the viewer. It is in the form of a diptych, the left-hand side black, the right-hand side white. It is split into two panels by a two-sided mirror, its edge pointing out towards the viewer, running the entire height of the painting. Each painted panel is unframed, the canvas pulled over deep stretchers. Looking straight on, one sees simply a divided painting, with the line of the mirrors edge slightly emphasizing that division. However, as one moves to look from the sides (as one is compelled to do by the volume suggested by the projecting edge), the mirrors surface comes into view, reflecting the adjacent painted canvas. It is the latter surface that dominates the view, appearing to continue into the mirror, into its interior. Looking from the left, a black painting continues into this interior; from the right, a white painting. The fascination of this (fictive) interior overwhelms the surface of the painting (the painted canvas panels) itself, which is the subject of this interior. The mirror is a completely accessible object on the surface of the painting which, in becoming a surface itself, enacts and becomes representation.
Michael Craig-Martin creates situations in which the prejudices that the viewer might apply to abstract or representational surfaces are in constant transformation or inversion. As the wall drawings of ordinary objects tend towards abstract perceptions, evidently abstract works so tend towards figural depth and Representation. In 1991, he made a series of paintings based on grids. Typically, the thickness of the grid line against the size of space between those lines was measured so that the inevitable figure of the line was in tension with the field of that space by being roughly equivalent to it. In works such as Dark Green Painting (1991), the abstraction of the grid is confounded by these associations. It is therefore possible to speak of the gridded surface both in terms of figure and ground and in terms of representational depth. The dark green paint could be said to be a veil concealing a bright white space. Or, the evenly distributed white marks could be said to hover over the dark green surface. Despite these fantastic constructions, the viewer is always returned to the painted surface, which, without the signs of authorship (of being painted as a painting should be), carries an abstract pattern. In Glass of Water Wall Painting (Red) (1991), a wall at the Waddington Gallery in London has been painted red, in the form of a very large and long canvas, and in two sections, separated by a narrow unpainted vertical gap. An ordinary glass shelf carrying an ordinary glass of water is fixed across this gap, higher than head-height. The red wall with the white strip resembles a colour-field painting in the manner of Barnett Newman, a historical lineage which initiates its accessibility to the viewer. However, this painting is more resolutely a surface, blatantly emulsion paint applied with a roller to the gallery wall. Unlike Newman’s colour fields, this surface is opaque, and the viewer’s attention is drawn to the strip and ultimately to the glass of water on the glass shelf, placed directly over it. In the water-filled glass, the narrow white gap of unpainted gallery wall is optically refracted, becoming voluminous, changing qualities as the viewer makes small movements to either side. In opposition to the painted surface, the glass of water is full of interest, it has an interior. It has (miraculously) released the potential of the white strip of unpainted wall, suggesting that the white strip indicates an interior itself. If this case is to be believed, then the red paint conceals an imaginary interior; it is a literal threshold between the gallery space and that interior. This fiction of painting has been generated by a device which is plain to see. It is in the room, the space of the viewer. It is actual, can be taken down off the shelf, and drunk.
In the suite of painted spaces at the Sztuki Museum in Łódź, the artefacts pictured on its walls reside in the ambiguous terrain between reality and representation, falling to either state only through the viewer’s imaginative determinations. Michael Craig-Martin causes the viewer to recognize that Actuality and Fiction are philosophical constructs, both interchangeable and simultaneously present in his work. The means he uses are those which are Art’s legacy: Language, Abstraction and Representation. Using a minimum of means, the viewer may have complex experiences of Art. The viewer can see this. The imagined difficulty of the constructed surface of Art can be grasped.
List of illustrations
1. Progression of Five Boxes With Lids Reversed, 1969 (remade in 1989), plywood coated with clear sealer, 610 x 4115 x 762mm.
2. On The Table, 1970, objects and water, 1220mm square, variable height.
3. Society, 1973, mirror, tape and handwriting on the wall, each 533 x 381mm.
4. An Oak Tree, 1973, objects, water and printed text, 130mm high.
5. Pacing, 1975, neon, 760 x 670 x 50mm.
6. Untitled Painting no. 4, 1976, oil on canvas, 1830 x 1830mm.
7. Untitled Wall Drawing, 1978, tape on wall, variable dimensions.
8. Wall Drawing III-A, 1990, tape on wall, variable dimensions.
9. Side Step, 1987, aluminium and painted steel rods with aluminium ladder, 1830 x 686 x 102mm.
10. Mirror Painting (Black Painting/White Painting), 1991, acrylic on canvas with mirror, 2286 x 1295 x 292mm.
11. Glass of Water Wall Painting (Red), 1991, housepaint on wall with objects, variable dimensions.
12. Dark Green Painting, 1991, acrylic and gesso on canvas, 2134 x 2134 x 38mm.
Lynne Cooke. (1989). “Michael Craig-Martin”, catalogue essay, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.
Michael Craig-Martin. (1973). Society artwork. (Statements: I have an idea of what I am like./ I have a different idea of how I appear to others./ Part of how I appear I intend./ Part of how I appear I do not intend./ Part of how I appear I recognise./ Part of how I appear I do not recognise./ Others have a different idea of what I am like./ Part of what I intend others miss. Part of what I don’t intend others see./ Part of what I recognise others see./ Part of what I don’t recognise other see.)
Michael Craig-Martin. (1978). “Taking Things as Pictures”, Artscribe, no. 14, October issue.
Michael Craig-Martin. (1989). “The Art of Context”, from Minimalism, catalogue, Tate Gallery Liverpool.
Robert Sokolowski. (1977). “Picturing”, The Review of Metaphysics, pp. 3-28.
I would like to thank Artur Zagula at the Sztuki Museum, Łódź, for having enough faith in me to give me the opportunity of writing this essay. Furthermore, I would like to thank Michael Craig-Martin, who has supported the project from the beginning and has given his time and insights generously. These insights have had a particularly profound effect on my own education. Thanks also to Waddington Gallery in London, and Jenny Mercer, who made everything easy and pleasant. And finally, heartfelt thanks to Fenella Clements, who read this paper and ensured that I did not slip into obscurity.
Mark Pimlott is an artist, designer, photographer, filmmaker, and art/design historian.