Three days before the opening of a new solo exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Tony Cragg could be found moving one of his works on a pallet jack. Named Stroke, because of its loose, Lichtenstein-like resemblance to a humongous, dimensional brushstroke, the top-heavy bronze had reduced the artist to baby steps as he tugged it a few metres through one of the halls. ‘The main thing is not to give up,’ he said afterward, downplaying its 1500 kg heft.
As the first show that the artist has staged at the Pantin gallery – located in a former heating factory northeast of Paris – the vastness of space largely determined his creation of 21 new works which, arguably, represent the 66-year-old’s most breathtaking to date.
Less a dramatic departure than a self-imposed challenge to expand upon ideas he has been exploring over and over for two decades, these sculptures, he tells Wallpaper*, emanate from an urge to impart a visceral response via the complexity of form.
‘I’m not an artist that throws things against the wall in the knowledge they’ll make interesting forms. That doesn’t interest me,’ he says. ‘I try to analyse and in a sense control the inside formal structure of a form, to the point that it becomes an emotional experience.’
For some, this will occur in the gallery’s cathedral hall, where three sculptures stand between 3.6 m and 5.7 m in height, like epic evidence of material workmanship that feels equally familiar and foreign—especially Mean Average, with its multi-stemmed, rippled mass reaching skyward.
But visitors are just as likely to feel overwhelmed by the compact, undulating layered forms that fill the two halls to the left and right of the entry alley. Whereas a grouping of lustrous bronzes evoke extraterrestrial engine parts, a separate pair painted in flat hues of yellow ochre and persimmon seem to have emerged from so many opposing forces that they defy any close comparison. If the Willow series registers as naturally occurring, with its biomorphic overlay of shell or planetary ring shapes, Listeners, a column studded with parabolic antennae in a pearlescent crimson reads as eerily manmade.
Collectively, Cragg explains, they express the tension that occurs when forms engulf other forms. Indeed, the exterior surface of several works often reveal internal structures, whether dense, or twisted and tangled; drawing views in, although only to the points that light can reach. ‘Some of the work is at the limit of what the foundry can do,’ admits the British sculptor.
Yet drawing – his starting point – offers infinite possibility, he insists, refuting the notion that a sketch exists as a two-dimensional construct. ‘I can see things in 5-D,’ he says with a laugh. ‘You often draw things that aren’t makeable. They’re not reality. And your brain twists them in a wonderful way.’