Tony Cragg Has Viewers "Seeing Things" at the Nasher

Tony Cragg's "Sinbad," 2000
Tony Cragg's "Sinbad," 2000
Charles Duprat

Saturday night's opening of Tony Cragg: Seeing Things at the Nasher had the museum packed with well-dressed Dallas art lovers humming and buzzing about the incredible body of work.

Nights like that remind me of one of Dallas' best features, gobs of arts' patrons discussing and admiring and examining the work of today's most important artists in spectacular venues. I have to admit though, it still makes me a little sad every time I walk in. Mr. Nasher would have loved Saturday night, I'm sure of it.

Two pieces that grab the eye the minute you enter the gallery are "Ever After" (wood) and "Ever After" (bronze), massively tall sculptures that look like they come from the wild, formations plucked from Joshua Tree or like water spiraling and then frozen in space. They seem too natural to be sculpted and yet too strange to be real. They tower over the viewer not imposingly but protectively, like giant cedars or mountain peaks. And from a distance, they look figural, like gentle giants posing in quiet.

"Eroded Landscape" is another piece that pulls the eye. It immediately makes you want to catalogue and name each of the many stacked and ordered vases and glasses and bottles and cups and objects, including a small bust of the Virgin Mary. The first layer of pieces rests on the floor with glass balanced on top with layer after layer of sheets of glass and glass pieces stacked atop them.

Like Escher or Jenga, it's an impossible structure and pulling out one piece could cause it to fall. Each piece seems entirely different in shape and yet in color and material they are exactly the same. Some are whole and others chipped or cracked. Each piece alone would likely not inspire a second glace, but all together, they create a monument. It's like the piecing together of the everyday in the forming of a life or the bringing together of people to create a force to be reckoned with.

Throughout the gallery, all around you, are faces and profiles stretched and reaching and watching within the sculptures. "Mental Landscape" is rife with faces, pulled like taffy and encased in a rock formation. "It is, It isn't" reveals more faces, these smooshed and squashed and stacked. "Runner" looks as if it's moving with silhouetted faces dashing off into opposite directions.

The sculpture garden was dotted with Cragg's pieces as well and bustling with people enjoying drinks and apps and perfectly paired music. Church bells ringing and the hum of the city outside the walls added to the vibe. "Distant Cousin," made of stainless steel, reflected images of the sculpture garden back to the viewer and looks almost as if a boat propeller were trapped inside.

"Points of View," all shiny and reflective, reminded me of the practice of stacking stones, which some consider a form of prayer or wishing or meditation, each stone a prayer or a person or a desire stacked as a means of asking for help or luck.

Another one of my favorite pieces in the garden was "Manipulation." Matte and black, it looked like fingers in the process of forming a fist or an octopus curling in on itself covered in symbols and letters like pieces designed for typesetting, as if language got frustrated with itself and was threatening to self-destruct. I was also drawn to "Versus," which looks as if Cragg has taken wet sand and dribbled it into a sculpture in a warm brown, black hue in the twilight.

Back in the gallery, at the bottom of the stairs, stands "Secretions," a sculpture made entirely of creamy colored plastic dice. It seems impossibly constructed. All I can think is if you solidified that which was secreted, this is the shape you'd get.

On the back wall are pencil sketches and watercolors of his designs and suddenly, it's as if you're seeing into the artist's head. And, in this case, it's a terribly interesting and conceptually stimulating place to be. You can't help but try to figure it all out.

Is that binary code or just ones and zeroes in that painting? Do they mean anything? Where did he get those hooks for that sculpture? Has he been collecting his whole life or did he send his assistant to buy out Home Depot? Why make one material look like another, like bronze that looks like rubber, instead of simply using the material you want the look of?

Downstairs, in the small gallery, more of his paintings and drawings hang on the walls and more of his sculptures fill the room. I couldn't stop looking at "Congregation," which looked to be an actual wooden boat with oars and a ladder and a rolling pin and driftwood and a stool and a bowl and a vice on it and under it and around it, all covered in hooks, silver and white and black with a few eyes thrown in as well. The shadows on the floor from the hooks leave question marks all around. What have we done? Where are we going? What have we, what will we hook?

In the corner stands "Complete Omnivore," a piece made from plaster, wood, and steel that looks like a massive set of teeth, roots and all, with metal bands along the inside of the top teeth and the outside of the bottom teeth. The top teeth perch on a square of wood marred with paint and stains and cuts sitting atop a battered metal frame. Is that ultimately how we are defined? Our teeth? It is how they identify dead bodies. And they do give away so much about us, what we eat, how we have cared for them, how anxious we are. They are honest to a fault.

So many of the pieces in the show look to be made of colored rubber or plastic despite being bronze. They look like kitchen accessories or extras in a Pixar film all waiting to stretch or expand, to pop open or twist and change with just a touch or a pull or a twist.

"Sinbad," for example (pictured above), looks like an oversized red plastic household gadget or intricate piece to a child's toy. "It's not as big as I thought," someone says as he walks around it in slow circles. "Doesn't it look like a plunger?" his friend replies.

Other pieces with the same deceptive texture, include Early Forms and Outspan, an interesting Cubist-like piece, which appears to be many sides of many shells, an oyster, a clam, a conch, all spirals and waves and ridges. So enormous, these pieces draw the viewer in to examine inside the ledges and edges, trying to solve the puzzle set before them. But what if there is no solving it?

Around every piece you can hear people discussing the pieces' beauty and magnitude and materials. Nothing is as it seems. The show did indeed have people "seeing things," seeing rubber where there was bronze; seeing movement where there was stillness; and seeing faces and water and rocks where there are, perhaps, simply suggestions.

The exhibit asks so many questions. When we use our eyes to examine our surroundings, do we really see or do we only look? If we do see, how do we know when to trust those images? How do we translate what we see in order to make meaning in the world and in our lives? If what can't be is, how can we possibly know what can't be?

On the way out of the gallery I spotted Cragg standing outside, waiting for someone, I gathered. So I introduced myself. He was incredibly gracious and unassuming. He commented on the heat and bowed his head modestly when I mentioned how much I enjoyed the show.

"Could I bother you with one question?" I asked.

"Of course."

"Do you always do a sketch or painting before creating a sculpture?"

"Oh no," he said. "It would kind of ruin the fun, I think," Cragg told me. "Drawing is really useful. But I don't think you should connect them up, that would be dreadfully boring and a waste. I think the drawing should be an adventure and the sculpture an adventure. Like any great voyage, you don't know where you'll end up."

He's a handsome man who looks like your favorite college professor. It's hard to imagine him creating such massive, edgy, explosive pieces, and I love the contradiction. Cragg is one of those people who makes you want to stay and talk the night away. I wanted to ask him the millions of questions his work left swirling through my head, like great art does.

We bump into each other, almost literally, in the parking lot a few moments later. I was wearing my new Jeffrey Campbell shoes from Feathers in Austin. Apparently, and much to my delight, they caught his art eye.

"Look at those shoes," he said. "I think I have the inspiration for my next work."

"Would you like to take a picture of them?" I asked.

He smiled at me and pointed to his head, "I just did."

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