Michael Craig-Martin occupies a position in the UK similar to that of John Baldessari in the US—an illustrious mentor to younger leading lights and a seriously important artist in his own right. Like Baldessari, Craig-Martin has spent decades analyzing the irresistible visual confections cooked up by the creative entities of “the media.” Baldessari has focused much of his career on the stagey narratives of film and photography, but Craig-Martin’s gimlet eye has been omnivorous in its attention. High art, typography, consumer goods, maps, all have been plucked from the messiness of the real world and distilled by Craig-Martin’s synthesizing imagination.
As a graduate student at Yale in the 1960s, Craig-Martin worked with Alex Katz, Al Held and Josef Albers, and if his gift for cleanly calibrated compositions and color schemes can be seen as owing something to his training, his delight in the upending of meaning is entirely his own. Everything he makes looks like it means something—not necessarily something profound, but something definite, announced with lapidary precision.
The ten-part suite Art and Design delivers exactly what it promises. Each screenprint sets a famous work of contemporary art against an iconic Modernist chair, both limned with the detail-free clarity of a physics textbook illustration. Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack hovers above Marcel Breuer’s 1932 chaise longue; Jeff Koons’ pseudo-inflatable bunny above le Corbusier’s Basculant chair. These objects were once loaded with transformative, difficult meanings; these days they are comfortably collectable (most of the chairs can be collected at doll house scale). The arrangement suggests an equation, but whether that is formal or chronological, material or conceptual, is difficult to say. The difficulty of saying is, of course, Craig-Martin’s point.
In the diptych Globalisation, the map of Asia is paired, in time-honored pedagogic mode, with a typographic key, but things go wrong fairly quickly. The landmass of China is labeled ‘Germany’ and its three major cities are ‘Washington’, ‘San Francisco’ and ‘New York’. Off the coast, beyond the divided Korean Peninsula (‘Belgium’ and ‘The Netherlands’) lies not Japan but the U.K. and its capital, Chicago. If you’re the type of person who like puzzles, you will try to deduce some kind of standing principal behind the name swaps—Japan and the UK are both island kingdoms; Germany and China are the most massive economies on their respective continents; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a recent history of imperial occupation just like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The problem is that no single principal works for all of them. What exactly links Portugal and Mongolia?
The key provides no answers; repeating these double identities in word form, it offers information without reason, knowledge without a place to park.
All these prints look great. The phrase “eye candy” could have been invented to describe them. But the gulf between clarity of design and clarity of meaning has rarely been so been so deftly mapped.