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June 6, 2011 6:34 pm

The great outdoors of perception

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Linear vitality: up close, Michael Craig-Martin’s steel umbrellas reveal themselves to be outlines, like drawings in space

Leaning casually in the grass, two giant umbrellas welcome us to Michael Craig-Martin’s exhibition at the New Art Centre, Roche Court. They gleam with almost incandescent brightness in the Wiltshire sunlight, and their powder-coated steel is strong enough to withstand the fiercest weather.

But as we move closer, the paradox informing these blue and orange umbrellas becomes apparent. For they have been reduced to a series of outlines, and could offer no protection in a storm. Although their identity as functional objects is clear, Craig-Martin seems fascinated by their alternative life as drawings in space, and we too end up relishing their linear vitality.

Craig-Martin rose to prominence in the 1970s with his pared-down conceptual sculptures; the following decade, as a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, he was a key influence on the Young British Artists. Now nearly 70, he excels himself in these new pieces. All displayed outside among trees, flowers and foliage, they give fresh life to his tireless exploration of everyday subjects. However direct they appear on a representational level, they rejoice in a near-abstract freedom too. Take the light-bulb, seemingly abandoned near a hedge. The lean, leaping exuberance of its contours becomes more apparent as we approach until, up close, their resemblance to a light-bulb is replaced by a freewheeling alternative, coiled on the ground before rising up to loop blithely through the air.

Roche Court’s grounds provide a wide variety of settings. The 10ft-high “Hammer (Purple)” occupies a spot that looks out on a lush landscape that stretches to a distant horizon. Resting its head in the grass, so that its handle thrusts towards the sky with phallic force, its presence in such an idyllic setting should be disruptive. But the more we look, the less aggressive it becomes; robbed of all solidity, it looks graceful rather than ferocious.

It even seems to be growing out of the grass like a defiantly tall plant. And when the wind blows with maximum force, “Hammer (Purple)” shakes in response. Although it refuses to be dislodged from the secure foundations underground, Craig-Martin clearly wants us to think about vulnerability as well as strength. From one angle it is nothing more than a thin line shooting towards the clouds.

Unlike some sculptors, who become obsessed with a single subject, Craig-Martin is fascinated by a great variety of forms. Walking back in the direction of the house, we notice an (untitled) etched glass panel standing on the terrace. From a distance, the pale lines incised there look almost ghostly. Yet they become very precise as we approach, defining the contours of objects interlinked with each other in a frieze-like progression across the glass. Some evoke the pleasures of drinking and eating, as though to indicate what might be on offer inside the house beyond; others are more functional, like the implements Craig-Martin has chosen for his other sculptures.

As our eyes travel across the panel, he plays with our perception by letting a bunch of keys flow into a pepper-pot, or by intertwining a sandal with a wine glass. Seemingly disparate things are fundamentally connected. Far from emphasising the isolation of a hammer or a light-bulb, he emphasises here the fundamental connectedness of seemingly disparate things.

So the isolation of “Gate (White)”, the other sculpture in Craig-Martin’s show, intensifies its strangeness. Immediately identifiable as a gate, with hinges, latch and all, its glowing white forms rise up from the grass with implacable certitude. Yet it is placed at the top of a slope, unattached to any wall, and we can gaze right through its tall, vertical bars to the house below. It cannot be opened: it is lodged firmly in the earth. But anyone can get round it, so flouting its putative authority – and making us appraise the sculpture as in essence a sequence of white lines, a cool, purged essay in minimal geometry.

An umbrella reappears in one of the paintings that Craig-Martin displays in the Roche Court gallery. This time, though, capital letters spelling out the word “SEX” are superimposed across the brolly, which floats upright on a pale green ground and has been opened up to reveal a pink interior. The letters, though, are too independent-minded to need its shelter. The sprightly blue “S” wriggles into the colossal “E” that extends from top to bottom of the painting; the phosphorescent orange “X”, over on the right, is much smaller but asserts a cheeky identity. Yet its sheer jauntiness also looks somewhat rash and vulnerable.

A darker side of Craig-Martin’s imagination comes to the fore in some of these paintings. He spells out the word “FLESH” in a puce-coloured image where the “H” jumps out at us with an extraordinary glow. But quite unexpectedly, an empty glove dangles down like a warning, and in the largest painting the mood grows still more ominous. The four letters of the word “TIME”, for example, hover around an enormous bucket filled with a sinister black liquid. The pale blue “I” suspended directly above could easily sink into it and, like a “vanitas” still-life, confirm that everything is doomed. Yet for the moment, at least, the letter’s brightness remains undefiled.

Until September 4
www.sculpture.uk.com

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