Tony Cragg, the 19-year-old son of an aircraft designer, was working as a lab technician at the Natural Rubber Producers Research Assn. in England in 1968. He was making little drawings "out of boredom" and feeling "this terrible split between science and art." His colleagues at the lab were of his father's generation, hearty believers in technology as a positive force and completely uninterested in cultural matters.
"I was so terribly unhappy," Cragg remembers, "partly because there was so much going on. The whole atmosphere, political and social, was changing. Sitting in this laboratory day and night, watching things ticking and taking readings of things was a very isolating kind of experience. So I just left."
A decade later, Cragg became widely known in the art world for his sculptural installations made of castoff bits and pieces of plastic. Stuck on gallery walls, airy clusters of these colorful fragments form the silhouettes of objects and people, such as "Policeman" and "Five Bottles on a Shelf."
These deceptively offhand pieces were a response to the ultra-streamlined works minimalist artists were making from expensive, durable materials, as well as a message of sympathy with the first flowering of widespread concern about the state of the environment. For Cragg, plastic expresses "a kind of shoddy humanness. (The works) say, "Look, I'm a human being and I have to cope with my problems."
Since then, Cragg--whose sculpture from the past 15 years is the subject of a major retrospective exhibit at the Newport Harbor Art Museum--has gone on to make free-standing works in wood, metal, plaster and stone. But permeating all of his art is a fascination with the natural world and the speculative ways scientists investigate it.
"I don't use art historical sources very much," he says. "I'm much more interested in what I can see, hear and feel, or what I cannot even see: non-visual things and states." As exhibit curator Paul Schimmel writes in his introduction to the catalogue, Cragg "juggles the traditions of craftsman, scientist, philosopher and entrepreneur."
Rather then having his large-scale work fabricated in a factory, as is common among contemporary sculptors, he supervises the work himself in his studio.
Cragg's pieces are an odd-looking lot. They bear a family resemblance to objects we're familiar with--test tubes, fossils, a DNA helix, vessels, eyeglasses, steeples, musical instrument cases--but each has mutated somehow. It may be much bigger, or made of unlikely materials. Maybe it's warped or shattered or combined with other improbable objects.
Behind the unexpectedness of these sculptures lies a vigorously involved way of looking at the world--not as a helpless consumer baffled by machines and indifferent to the environment, but as an intelligent observer open to experience and curious about how the world works.
"I am interested in rocks, plants, how humans breathe," Cragg says. "I can't understand anyone who isn't interested in that. If you don't know what materials (are used) and how they work and why they are better materials, what kind of values do you have? . . . The more artificial and man-made the environment becomes, we have to find a richer language for it. We have to find new images, new poetry, new freedoms."
What: "Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975-1990."
When: Through Dec. 30. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. (The exhibit is part of the Festival of Britain, an arts festival and retail promotion.)
Where: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach.
Whereabouts: Jamboree Road to Santa Barbara Drive, just north of Coast Highway, and take the first left to San Clemente.
Wherewithal: Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for students and seniors, $1 for children 6 to 17, free for everyone on Tuesdays.
Where to call: (714) 759-1122.