Tony Cragg is the latest artist to be featured in the magnificent grounds of Houghton Hall in Norfolk. For more than half a decade, this stately home has held in the spring and summer months superb one-person shows of contemporary sculpture. The exhilarating sequence was initiated with James Turrell when visitors could even come at night to see the Grade I listed house illuminated with a Turrell light piece.
Tony Cragg is among the most exuberant and exhilarating yet to be on view – MV
Other sculptors have included Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst, and Richard Long: perhaps inevitably, Henry Moore (2019) has been the only historic figure in the course of modernism, and no woman has yet been shown. For perhaps obvious reasons, women are in a tiny minority of well-known sculptors, and among the best known – Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth – they tend to be figurative and perhaps even (hit me now) a bit sentimental.
The series was inspired by the enormous success of Houghton Revisited in 2013 when Houghton reconstructed to dazzling effect Sir Robert Walpole’s art collection. This collection had got away when it was sold to Catherine the Great in 1779. This was a dazzling critical and commercial success. The following sequence of outdoor sculpture shows complemented by using two great rooms on the piano nobile, have provided a highly welcome introduction to some of the great contemporary artists in a geographic region somewhat short of major public collections of England compared to other areas of England. Some 1000 acres of parkland under vast skies provide huge vistas, twisting paths, innovative ha-has, designed by Charles Bridgeman, typify that extraordinary English art form, the landscaped park, tamed yet wild.
The huge formidable pieces by Tony Cragg are also, perhaps surprisingly, among the most exuberant and exhilarating yet to be on view. They have a large presence, gigantic in their way, yet manage to seem welcoming, amusing, slightly sardonic, even at times gently self-mocking. Cragg’s immensely varied repertoire of forms are always tantalisingly suggestive: a body part, orifice, anatomical fragment, human? Animal? Even flora as well as fauna, all have had at some point had a part to play in his sculptures. With a magical eye and hand, he has assembled disparate pieces culled from whatever animated creature has been in his mind’s eye into a convincing whole.
Cragg has had a long and visible career, over half a century, much of his working life in Germany. He has represented Britain in the Venice Biennale and won the Turner Prize. Much earlier work used a repertoire of forms that looked like pieces in a game, man-made abstractions, but still suggestive of the human form, chess rather than checkers. Here we have somehow a much warmer version, still playful, but suggestive of human interactions, of a web of living things.
There is a kind of anthropomorphism, in abstracted shape suggestive of living gesture. For example, Ferryman, a web of bronze rather than a solid figure: is this a creature beckoning us on a journey, a creature which in spite of being made of bronze on of the most solid materials imaginable for sculpture, seems curiously ephemeral? His use of materials is wide, leading to subtle changes in the look of things, in textures, surfaces, reflections: cast iron, fiberglass, Jesmonite (me neither, it is an artificially manufactured substitute for cast concrete), aluminium, stainless steel, wood, glass, onyx, stone. Size and scale are also varied: giant and larger than human to tabletop.
The large pieces – a dozen or more – in the landscaped grounds are sensitively spaced and set out so that visitors can see them set against manicured nature and also come up close and see them in the round. Their titles are evocative: Runner is just that a twisting double tower of horizontal shapes stacked irregularly and suggestive of movement, and of a sense of each straining against the other to go free. Stack is an agile grouping, detailed and elaborate and for all its dancing choreography suggestive of rest and stasis. It is, It isn’t is a tumble of stainless steel, in a kind of now you see it, now you don’t — a whirling stack appearing in different relationships as you walk around. Almost twenty pieces are shown indoors, tabletops, in wood, iron, glass. Whatever the scale, what Cragg accomplishes for the spectator is satisfactorily contradictory. He gives us a sense of dancing movement and serene stillness simultaneously, and with the altered perspectives that the viewer chooses by looking from afar and close to, from one angle and in the round, somehow the sense of many works and possibilities put into one visual statement.
He does what the most imaginative artists do: by exercising his imagination, he gives the viewer plenty of room for manifold responses. The work is not threatening nor intimidating, but it is imposing, authoritative and with its own visual voice, recognisable and welcoming. Each piece seems almost endlessly inventive but so quietly assured that the result is the opposite of unsettling. Each sculpture encapsulates a visual journey that has arrived at a satisfactory and satisfying resolution. Enjoyment is an underrated response to art, often implying superficiality or decorative in pejorative terms. Here with Cragg, his high visual intelligence means we can respond on so many levels, enjoyment but one. It is a pleasure to play his game and catch his references to such a wide repertoire of observable representative forms from each of which an essence has been distilled into Cragg’s appealing visual games. Both artist and spectator are winners
Top Photo: Tony Cragg ‘Mean Average’ 2018 Photo P C Robinson © Artlyst 2021
Tony Cragg at Houghton Hall, 19 May – 26 September 2021, Norfolk