Tony Cragg, installation view of “Tony Cragg,” 2024. Photo: Elon Schoenholz, Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Tony Cragg

Los Angeles

Marian Goodman

Tony Cragg’s main objective as a sculptor has been to erode distinctions between the natural and the fabricated, between the handcrafted and the industrial. Over the course of a peculiar, non-linear career, he has treated the materiality of sculpture as a language but has also attempted to infuse whatever he uses with a mythic, even magical, quality. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, his sculptures revolved around salvaged objects and refuse, including broken plates, bits of fractured plastics, found wood, and old clothes. These works encompassed a wealth of double meanings (not all embodied in the crudeness of the materials themselves) while also deriving a kind of quiddity simply from their specific presentation on the wall or floor. What Cragg produced at that time walked a fine and dissonant line between traditional notions of sculpture and the language of the conceptual.

By the late 1980s, he lost interest in this direction, ditching his raffiné, catch-as-catch-can finds in favor of traditional, heavy-on-fabrication materials like bronze, steel, stone, and wood. At around the same time, he left England for Wuppertal, Germany, where he set up a factory-like establishment; ever since, his work has been fabricated with the help of numerous assistants. Until roughly 25 years ago, everything was still done by hand, with no computer assistance, but that changed, too, when he began using computer-aided design in 2000.

Cragg’s current exhibition (on view through June 29, 2024) features more than 30 objects and drawings grouped mainly by material or theme. The selections all relate to the body in some way or reference natural phenomena—waves, compound creatures, trees. The work is complex to an extreme degree, almost baroque in the amount of surface detailing—every wave-form, crease, and protuberance is echoed, mirrored, repeated. Many of the pieces, like Stages (2021), had their inception in a series of earlier vertical pieces made by repeatedly stacking wood ovals of varying sizes and sanding the edges into smoothed columnar forms.

Cragg employs dramatic materials in these works and exploits their characteristics to the fullest degree. Stones are dark, variegated, and floridly veined, while layered wood displays wild grain patterns. The welded structures are a lush orangey Cor-ten steel, the stainless steel pieces extremely reflective, and the bronzes heavily patinated. Every object shines—after a while, the polished gleam of the surfaces begins to dominate as their most crucial characteristic. Each sculpture mirrors its neighbors in some way—a curatorial device that makes the work appear curiously unvaried.

The cacophony of detail becomes rather exhausting, subtlety subsumed in repetition—and perfection. These are flawlessly executed objects, and I was astonished to learn that they were produced by hand, by teams of artisans working over extended periods of time. All of that labor ironically results in works with the sleek, streamlined, soulless look of CNC machining. In fact, David Pye’s “workmanship of risk” hovers in the distance, since Cragg’s drawings and sculptures are scaled up in CAD programs, with the artist overseeing every phase in their production. If an evocation of the natural world is what Cragg and his team were after, that goal has been lost to rigid, serial development and high-gloss, replicated surfaces.