Friday, March 18, 2016

Tony Cragg: Sculptures @ Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Pantin.

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Tony Cragg, Hardliner, 2013
In yet another compelling exhibition at ThaddeausRopac’s Pantin gallery, Tony Cragg’s sculptures come alive in this former industrial space. If there was any doubt about Cragg’s status as a leading international sculpture, the exhibition dispels them. The sculptures do everything that great art is meant to do. The works in wood, steel, bronze and marble create connections with the past, they challenge us intellectually, warm our hearts, invite us inside them, to become enveloped by them, and to find stillness and solace in their presence. Intellectually and philosophically, they are far-reaching and touch upon every aspect of contemporary life. I found them so compelling that saying goodbye was difficult to do.

Installation view of the cut metal sculptures
Paris audiences will remember the wonderful exhibition of Cragg’s work at the Louvre in 2011 when they were displayed together with Franz Xavier Messerschmidt’s emotionally expressive heads. At the Louvre, Cragg’s sculptures took on all the emotional intensity of the Messerschmidt heads. Here in the industrial space at Pantin, they are much quieter, more reflective, thinking about their own place in the world, less in relationship to those around them. Unlike their installation at the Louvre, at Thaddaeus Ropac, Cragg's sculptures are deliberately shown as individuals, separated from each other. They still take on anthropomorphic qualities, they still beckon us towards them and solicit quite profound physical and emotional responses. But they are placed too far from each other to be in direct conversation. 
Detail of Contradiction, 2014

Surrounded by the white walls of Thaddaeus Ropac, my attention was drawn to the materiality of the sculptures. The point of Cragg’s work is often to push the material to places that we believe it is not, to find its opposite within it. Metals are bent and made viscous, wood is stretched, marble is animated, and the bronzes become sinuous and tender. My favourites, as always, were the wooden sculptures. I wanted to touch them, their movement was so erotic and sensuous. A piece such as Contradiction (2014) has a surface that is smooth, like silk. It pulls me towards it, close to it, to the point where I want to fall inside of it. The wood itself, even before it has been carved, is sensuous and expressive and changing and sometimes unpredictable. The trains and flaws in the wood make it expand and contract, sometimes it’s as though the form is stretching out of the material. The piece as a whole moves from monumental at a distance, to intimate and warm, filled with secrets it is dying to share once we get close.
marble detail of Willow III, 2014
The white marble is also tempting to touch. The material is filled with veins and flaws that are like blood vessels, sometimes waiting to burst. The luminescence of the marble, the trace of its veins make it vulnerable and filled with emotion. As I stood together with the marble sculptures such as Willow III (2014), up close, it occurred to me that there is something almost pornographic about the marble it is so seductive. Like an erotic tease, we can get closer and closer, but never touch. These sculptures, all of them, are always, just out of reach. Even those visitors who reached out and touched the sculptures would have found them untouchable. In contact with their delicate surfaces, their mystery is still not revealed.
Installation View
From Left: Lost in Thought (2012), Runner (2013), Contradiction 2014)
Headland (2015)

When the bronze is juxtaposed with the wooden sculpture, it’s inflexibility and intransigence is what stands out, becomes so painfully obvious. The bronze of Contradiction (2014) is so intransigent, even if up close it resembles the most intimate parts of the human body. Next to Runner (2013) it is colossal. Moving from a biomorphic form to a hard, intransigent sculpture. And then, up close, I peer inside its curvaceous forms and I see what might be the entwining of two bodies, making love. In this way, the sculptures force us to rethink our assumptions, our vision of the world. In the stainless steel of It Is, It Isn’t, 2014, I get to see distorted versions of myself, in pieces. This kind of steel, up close, also shows the world in different formations. And I am not a part of that world that it reflects.
Detail of Contradiction 2014

In this exhibition I saw the sculptures made of cut and twisted metal for the first time. Some of them look like giant jars, but they are are not. The suspension of motion makes a piece like Stroke (second from left above) inside out, inverted, opposite to how it should be. We think of metal as being fixed, static, and yet it is here, placed in infinite motion. The cut pieces could be schrapnel from another planet, themselves having the appearance of  finished products that are still waste material, made into nothing of value. In an Instant, on the other hand, is like a growth, or some kind of indeterminate creature from outer space. Whatever they are, there is a constant attempt to make them familiar. It’s not just that we are pulled to look inside them, to know them, to get intimate with them, but their animation, or anthropomorphism invites us to see in them what is never going to be there. Lost in Thought for example, is another piece that is is layer upon layer of twisted, turning wooden limbs, pipes, like the most intimate body parts.