Tony Cragg Mineral Vein 1986

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Artwork details

Tony Cragg born 1949
Mineral Vein
Date 1986
Medium Plywood, plastic, steel bowl and glass bottle
Dimensions Object: 2110 x 1195 x 815 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1986
Not on display

Catalogue entry

T04866 Mineral Vein 1986

Wood, plastic, enamelled metal, glass, wax crayon 2110 × 1195 × 815 (83 × 47 × 32 1/8)
Not inscribed
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Lit: Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, pp.140–1

This sculpture was made in Wuppertal, Germany, where Tony Cragg has lived and worked since the late 1970s. It comprises both ‘found’ and prefabricated parts and the three main elements are a cupboard, a length of plastic pipe and a wooden form resembling a house. The largest form in the work is the cupboard or shelving unit which was made by the artist from plywood. The cupboard has an unusual design on a pentagonal base with four closed sides and a fifth side which is open, revealing the interior of four shelves. At the back of the cupboard two sides meet in a right angle, giving it the appearence of a corner cupboard. It is not known whether the artist invented the design of the cupboard or whether he based the unit on an existing piece of furniture. The cupboard contains two items, a green glass Chianti wine bottle on the top shelf and an enamelled steel pot on the second shelf. Both objects are fixed in their locations but the fixings are hidden. On top of the cupboard is a box in the form of a house made by the artist from veneered hardboard with a plywood roof. Resting on one side of the cupboard is a long section of plastic piping. Following its acquisition and with the agreement of the artist, the house form was secured to the cupboard with four screws and a fixing was attached to the pipe to hold it in place while on display. Aside from the pot and bottle the constituent parts are all brown in colour and are covered in a uniformly dense web of scribbled lines made by the artist using a black wax crayon.

Cragg first used the technique of scribbling on objects in 1974 when, as a student at the Royal College of Art (1973–7), he covered a large paper bag with a web of loose gestural marks in charcoal (repr. Tony Cragg, exh. cat., British Council, Venice Biennale 1988, p.17). The scribbling is less fluid than in the later works and is evenly distributed, uniform in tone and without any central focus. Unlike T 04866, the paper bag piece used only a single object. An earlier project - Cragg's first work made as a student at Wimbledon School of Art in 1969-involved cutting a ball of string into countless short, knotted lengths, and distributing them thickly and evenly over areas such as a bathroom or a desk-top (repr. British Council exh. cat., 1988, p.14). While the paperbag piece introduced the notion of imposing a surface pattern onto objects by drawing, the earlier experiment with string explored the idea of uniting a range of objects through an organising device such as a pattern. Both are aspects of T04866. It is not unusual to find in Cragg's mature work the development of ideas first explored in student works.

Between 1983 and 1987 Cragg made many sculptures by grouping objects and drawing over their surface. There are works in which he included only found objects, such as ‘Taxi’, 1983 and ‘Grey Container’, 1983 (repr. Tony Cragg, exh. cat., Société des expositions du palais des beaux-arts de Bruxelles, 1985, pp.57, 59), works in which he constructed all the items, such as ‘Evensong’, 1984, and ‘Col’, 1985 (repr. ibid., pp.65, 69), and others such as T04866 in which he combined found and fabricated items. The result of covering the surface of a number of different objects with a web of drawn lines is to create a kind of camouflage whereby the disruptive effects of juxtaposing contrasting materials are eliminated. The artificial covering blunts the historical and regional identities of the found objects. The critic Lynne Cooke has argued that Cragg uses devices involving repetition, such as the scribbled surface used in T04866, to make us see a kinship between objects and nature, ‘as if the ordering and structuring patterns instinctive to man mirror those of nature and thus indicate his fundamental rapport with nature’ (Tony Cragg, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery 1987, p.49). The procedure also has the effect of drawing attention to purely formal properties. Cragg explored similar concerns in a group of sculptures in which a number of objects arranged together are covered by a ‘skin’ of small multi-coloured plastic fragments. Examples of this type include ‘No Place for a Rabbit’, 1985, and ‘Lens’, 1985 (repr. Tony Cragg, exh. cat., Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover 1986, pp.75, 42). Of these works Cragg has written that ‘what I wanted to do there was to neutralise the surface, the same way I did when I drew. It unites the material. Here, it is more radical, obviously’ (‘Tony Cragg: Interview with Isabelle Lemaître’, Artefactum, Nov. 1985, p.8).

Plastic fragments offered Cragg a dense camouflage with which to disguise objects of different origins. In the crayoned works the grouped items, both found and made, are intentionally more alike than in the plastic fragment pieces. For example, T04866 is dominated by the use of hardboard and veneered surfaces, and the degree of surface patterning required to unite the objects is consequently less severe.

Domestic furniture has always played an important role in Cragg's work. According to the artist:

Furniture is an example of a group of several objects against which human scale becomes very clear: the scale in which human beings are in the world. Furniture exemplifies processes which in an elementary way make apparent the manner in which human beings modify their environment. Furniture is an extension of human beings and reflects their activities. Today we have developed high technology for the processing of minerals, wood and other materials in order to change the world to accommodate ourselves. At the same time they reveal political values ... social functions ... and personal functions. The vacant furniture betrays the user.

(Hayward Gallery exh. cat., 1987, p.54)

Although the specific cupboard used in T04903 is not found elsewhere in Cragg's work, other cupboards and pieces of furniture are often employed. Both ‘Landscape’, 1983 and ‘Montagne Nature’, 1984, cited above, include items of furniture.

The house motif, which Cragg uses for the same reasons that he employs domestic furniture, first occurred in ‘House’, 1982 (repr. Tony Cragg Sculpture 1975–90, exh. cat., Newport Harbor Museum, California 1990, p.86), which was a skeleton house made from found objects strung out along a metal frame. Cragg constructed small wooden houses for several sculptures in 1984 and 1985. Of the works cited above that, like T04866, are made by grouping objects and drawing on their surfaces, both ‘Col’, 1985 and ‘Evensong’, 1984, include house-like forms made by the artist from wood. The house form placed on top of the cupboard in T04866 is a plain box with a pitched roof. No clues to its vernacular origins are offered. This is intentional, as Cragg explains:

I don't want to get into a situation of making likenesses, but I do want the thing to be referential. It's less a question of making generalisations than of referentiality, so that the images can be used in a framework with other materials and other forms. It is also a way to avoid any kind of topicality in favour of a more all-embracing quality.

(Hayward Gallery exh. cat., 1987, p.28)

Thematically, T04866 belongs to a series of works in which the artist approaches subjects connected with the landscape, both rural and urban, from above the ground and subterranean. Landscape was the primary focus for his work prior to his exhibition at the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, in 1986, but it has provided the framework for all his work. Looking back on his career, Cragg stated in 1990:

people say there's a great deal of variety in my work, but I'm not so sure that's true ... It's like making a complete landscape with all the parts in it: there's the urban world, architecture and so on, there's the organic world, there's the atmosphere, and there's the geological structure.

(Newport Harbor exh. cat., 1990, p.110)

Much of Cragg's work explores these interconnected realms, for he is interested in examining the material constitution of the world and how we understand it and respond to it. He has been inspired by science and technology, and references to biology and the physical sciences are frequently found in his work. In ‘The Worm Returns’, 1986 (repr. Hayward Gallery exh. cat., 1987, p.33), the plastic balls form complex groups which allude to the molecular structures of sugar and alcohol atoms, and in ‘Code Noah’, 1989 (repr. Newport Harbor Museum exh. cat., 1990, p.135). a DNA-like spiral informs the structure of the work. Cragg is fascinated by the structures that underlie and articulate the visible world: ‘There are in the material world certain recurring bases. There is an atomic particular nature, which is all pervading, and in addition there are layers, and once you have layers you start to have strange indications of time - geological, layers in a tree, biological layers’ (Hayward Gallery exh. cat., 1987, p.34).

The title of T04866, ‘Mineral Vein’, relates to Cragg's interest in geological layers or strata. The work can be seen as a cross-section through the landscape, if one interprets the house as being built above ground and the underground as being represented by the cupboard, with the shelves marking different geological layers. The inclusion of items that are made by man from mineral resources (the glass bottle and the steel pot) extends the potential meanings of the work and suggestions of tunnelling and excavation, provoked by the length of pipe, may indicate that Cragg is drawing attention to mining and manufacture as crucial aspects of man's relationship to the natural world. It is also possible to see the bottle and pot as archeological remains lodged within the earth, waiting to be excavated. The motif of the vessel recurs throughout Cragg's work of the 1980s and often has paleontological associations (see, for example, ‘Eroded Landscape’, 1987, repr. Newport Harbor exh. cat., 1990, p.127). The artist is as much interested in the future as in the past and is intrigued by what the future will make of our culture. For Cragg domestic objects are ‘man-made fossilized keys to a past time which is our present’ (Hayward Gallery exh. cat., 1987, p.28).

In two more recent works Cragg has used the title of T 04866 and developed the geological theme of the work (‘Mineral Vein’, 1990, green marble, repr. Tony Cragg, exh. cat., Kunstverein Ruhr, Essen 1991, pp.18–19, and ‘Mineral Vein’, 1991, nero manguini marble, no repr. known). Both sculptures comprise large, cracked blocks of marble which have been carved to reveal man-made objects seemingly embedded within the material and which appear as the fossilised remnants of a former civilisation.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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