Over the last 30 years Michael Craig-Martin has repurposed the most quotidian of objects for his cool, decidedly impersonal brand of art. Whether it’s his monochrome wall drawings from the 1980s, or the vibrant, garish acrylic works that followed in the mid-1990s, the Dublin-born artist has always looked to the humdrum products of material culture for inspiration. As a result, a never-ending parade of lightbulbs and shoes and cassette tapes have persisted as the mass-produced subjects of his singular work.
Perhaps best known for his irreverent palette and for teaching some of the YBAs at Goldsmiths College, London, including Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst, Craig-Martin seems to draw on minimalism as much as he does pop art.
A technicolour new exhibition at the Serpentine is his first solo show in the UK since 1989, and traces a brief history of both familiar and obsolete technology: laptops, games consoles, mobile phones, fluorescent bulbs et al in all their ever-changing and in some cases already outmoded glory. Transience spans the years between 1981 and 2015, from his first wall drawing, Stack, to his most recent painting, a watch that also appeared in the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy curated by Craig-Martin earlier this year.
“When I started drawing these ordinary, everyday objects in the late 1970s, I thought they were pretty stable in the world; I assumed that they would not change over time. When I first drew a lightbulb, I had no idea that it would become a thing of design history,” he is quoted in the exhibition text.
But what were intended to be neutral representations of things have over time accrued all manner of associations, including aspects of consumerist commentary and entries into design history. “I didn’t want them to look personal,” he explained. “There’s very little information in these works, the information is in the viewer.” What Craig-Martin means is that what we see in his work, the social or cultural connotations attached to the recognisable silhouette of an Adidas trainer or the sleek lines of an iPhone, we project onto what is otherwise exceptionally blank.
“There’s very little information in these works, the information is in the viewer”
He also stressed that he deliberately settled on a style of drawing that was “styleless,” so to speak, the irony being that his images are almost immediately recognisable. If you persist with anything long enough, he said, it can become interesting. Like Andy Warhol before him, who erased all traces of his own hand with impersonal paintings and prints that scratched the surface of pop culture, Craig-Martin taps into contemporary life, and in Transience in particular, the transition from analogue to digital.
On a cold, wet Tuesday morning, his vivid work seems the perfect foil to the late November weather. The show, a small-scale affair, is manageable and unpretentious, and plays to the unusual symmetry of the galleries. From his early days of working directly on gallery walls, Craig-Martin is no stranger to engaging with his exhibition spaces, and he has painted three of the rooms – two magenta, one teal – to match his paintings. The exhibition also includes a new wallpaper made from his line drawings.
Impactful without being evocative, Transience seems to invoke the profound but sometimes distant effects that shifts in technology have on our lives, and our definitions of ordinary. Both the new and the obsolete leave their mark, and in this show Craig-Martin makes clear that the things we use every day are always shaping our experiences.
Transience is on show at the Serpentine Gallery until 14 February 2016.