LocationGoss-Michael Foundation 2500 Cedar Springs Rd. Dallas, TX 75201
DatesFeb 6 thru Apr 30
Michael Craig-Martin, the celebrated Anglo/Irish/American artist who lives and works in London, is currently exhibiting at the Goss-Michael Foundation. His long and varied career is glimpsed through a small selection of new paintings and video-paintings. Step inside and find a very British artist. To the uninitiated, there are reverberations of iconic American pop art. Look again. There are none of the devices of distance and mediation that lodge ‘pop’ in between its parent imagery and its predicated audience. The tuned-in and turned-on anglophile-stage-door-Johnny may see British painter Patrick Caulfield lurking in the shadows here. Look deeper into the wings and there are shades of Jasper Johns, Robert Morris, Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Leger even. Somewhere way, way back is even a bit of Kenneth Williams (look him up). Flip forward in time, and you’ll see Julian Opie, Liam Gillick and a whole busload of YBA day-trippers. The work seems to speak easily and directly and yet it is harder to place than at first look.
Michael – or MCM, as he is affectionately known – was my personal tutor at Goldsmiths College, University of London, twenty-seven years ago. Michael was the then youngest ever artist collected by the Tate and his long career has seen many phases – integrating sculpture, painting, and, more recently, language through line and vibrant color. In the last two decades he has smelted these concerns into the singular act of painting. He was the first artist, for me, of many great artists teaching at Goldsmiths, to clarify or challenge casual assumptions in art. For example, the phrase ‘abstract painting’ is a terrible way to describe what it is. A more accurate name, he would say, would be ‘concrete painting.’ Figurative paintings are the abstract paintings. He was often prescient – rarely demonstrative. He taught by allowing meaning to reveal itself by surrounding the elusive central idea with other ideas. This was a simultaneously pragmatic and poetic approach based on his deeply held philosophical belief that, for him, an art work represents the embodiment of an idea as opposed to the symbol for one. This belief is most succinctly expressed in his seminal early work, The Oak Tree (1973).
Michael has always spoken with clarity and precision. He introduced to a whole generation of students in the 1980s at Goldsmiths the possibility that artists might consider themselves professionals, whether or not they were actually being paid. It was an essentially American attitude that he was fusing with his adopted native culture in Great Britain, and he did it to challenge the romantic myth of the undiscovered genius in the garret. In other words, don’t wait to be discovered. Discover yourself. (Behave!)
Here was an artist who had met with Jasper Johns and was now teaching me. As a student, this made me feel like I was already connected to a direct lineage. Here was a man who introduced to 19-year-old undergraduates ideas that were contained within philosophy couched as practical art method and approach. In a tutorial in my final year, MCM once asked me of one of my paintings:
“Richard, why did you make the decision to paint that background pink?”
I thought long and hard. Did I need to say something about Wittgenstein? – no one can understand the Blue Book or Brown Book at age 22 – something about Francis Bacon maybe, or Francis Picabia, er…er…I was stumped. He gently proffered, “Was it because you wanted to?”
I paused, and said, “Yes, because I wanted to.” He smiled and said, “That’s fabulous!” I was, of course, by now, fantastically pleased with myself.
The truth is, this was a deceptively complex question and a complex answer. What was fabulous was not his/my answer, but the pink paint and its irrational unwarranted application. It was an issue of permission and the tens of thousands of yes/no decisions that an artist makes in moving forward. It is perhaps this that has something to do with the art of MCM.
In the Goss Michael Foundation show there are paintings, a large white frieze-like wall drawing on vinyl that covers two walls and slowly color-drifting video-paintings including a double portrait of Kenny and George. He depicts the every day objects as linear drawings made by hand based on his observation of those objects. The relationship of these depictions to the mechanics of language is immediately clear. A drawing of a shoe is a shoe in the way that the word ‘shoe’ is also a shoe. Except that in the drawing, the shoe is a particular shoe, not a generic shoe. The objects float in space with a democracy of scale: a shoe bigger than a fire extinguisher and smaller than a paring knife. In making his art, this subtle and complex process might be called ‘picturing’ and is central and everywhere in Michael’s work. It represents his fascination with the interface of where perception meets invention.
A painting of a urinal. Any urinal? Yes, and of course Duchamp’s urinal. We look at the painting, we imagine the object, we see the image, we see the colors, we imagine we pee, we imagine Duchamp, we imagine Duchamp’s urinal, we even imagine Duchamp peeing. It’s a free country.
A giant pair of handcuffs on a cadmium orange background. Which is more concrete? They hover like a giant question mark in space. Are they Richard Hamilton’s handcuffs, a police officer’s, Kenny Goss’, Boy George’s? Who knows? The relationship of the ‘cuffs to the ground suggests separateness and togetherness, oppression and freedom, the figure and the ground, openness and closedness. Locked and unlocked. And so with all of MCM’s paintings: an answer and a question.
Some of the paintings featured in the show contain various letters of the alphabet. Their arrangement, often in overlapping and perhaps the wrong order are interspersed with various objects, suggesting that the letters themselves are objects. MCM might appear as CMM or MMC, for example, but with a six foot metronome by way of Matisse interspersed. This one says “Luck,” but my brain had already substituted an ‘F” for the “L.” I thought this one said “PANIC,” but wait, it says “MANIC,” or is that “MANIAC.”
Michael’s paintings are to do with how we come to see the world and the infinite complexity of meaning and language. He is a deeply intelligent man who is fascinated by the way in which we exchange our most complex and intimate thoughts and perceptions through art and language. Why do Kenny and George’s portraits slowly morph through various full chroma ‘unnatural’ colors? Because there is no right color; there is always another painting, another composition, another possibility contained within this one. This is at the very heart of painting and is to do with the fact that meaning is always present but always in a state of flux. And yet MCM resolutely paints the physical world for the same reason most painters do: to connect.
Or is he painting the idea of the physical world? Or the idea of the physical?
Yes/no, yes/no, yes/no…..
Main image: Michael Craig-Martin Commissioned Portrait, 2007 (shown in series). Wall-mounted LCD monitor/computer with integrated software (courtesy of The Goss-Michael Foundation)