Red alert

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Michael Craig-Martin shows there's more to ordinary objects than might at first appear, says James Sharp

Michael Craig-Martin's painting "Knowing", 1996, can be found in Tate Modern. In the picture the artist has very carefully painted eight household items - a ladder, a torch, a globe, a metronome, a bucket, a fire extinguisher, a table and a chair. The relative sizes of the objects have been altered to make them appear to recede into the distance. The arrangement challenges what we know to be true about each object: the ladder appears smaller than the metronome, the globe bigger than the chair.

Furthermore, each object is defined by a thin black outline filled in with bold, bright, flat colour.

Set against the strong red background, the objects jostle for our attention; they seem real yet also artificial. We find ourselves wondering about the relationships between them. Why has the artist chosen these objects? Is there a connection between them? The painting is typical of Craig-Martin's work in raising so many questions about the nature of looking. The artist plays with scale and colour so the viewer must consider the nature of appearance and what it is we bring to the images in terms of preconceptions and prior knowledge. It also typically contains easily recognisable, everyday objects.

It is painted in acrylic emulsion. Close analysis shows that the black outlines were painted first and then probably isolated using masking tape while the flat areas of colour were applied. The eight different objects are part of a catalogue of more than 200 images the artist has used in his work since 1978.

The images begin as pencil drawings on paper with the object normally being viewed from slightly above and at a three-dimensional angle. The drawing is then traced on to clear acetate using thin black tape and added to the pool of images. The artist uses no shading or descriptive colouring to help us identify the objects, and any individual features and logos are removed.

His choice of objects ensures we know them, although we have to juggle our knowledge of their scale in relation to each other with the artist's representation of them.

There is nothing mysterious or remarkable about the objects Craig-Martin portrays. However, devoid of all distinguishing characteristics they take on a uniformity and we have to remember that their function in real life has nothing to do with their function in the painting. There would seem to be a good deal of humour in the way the artist juxtaposes one object against another, hinting at relationships between them. At the same time the painting transforms everyday objects into something else, something spiritual perhaps. Everyday life transformed by the power of art.

While Craig-Martin's use of strong black outlines and flat colour may appear simple, there is considerable skill in the representation of the objects. The painting has a technical sophistication and immediate and easy accessibility that will appeal to children of all ages. Pupils will find themselves intrigued by the choice of objects and it could be the stimulus for discussion and storytelling. They could make up stories as to how the objects came to be where they are and whose objects they might be.

The painting could be explored as part of a project on still-life paintings. It fits in well with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority key stage 2 unit on objects and meanings as well as the KS3 unit on objects and viewpoints. Pupils could, for example, compare the work to Cubist still-life paintings. They could explore how the artists have used colour and form and how ideas about space are represented in the different compositional styles. Older pupils could investigate other work by Craig-Martin, such as "Order of Appearance" (1990), a set of four screen prints in which the objects are jumbled on top of each other, or "Japanese Screen" (1996), in which the objects appear to be floating. Pupils might also compare the work with the Impressionists, who mixed and mingled colours together.

Primary children could compare the work with other examples of hard-edge painting, such as Patrick Caulfield's "Pottery" (1969), which is also in the Tate. In the painting, Caulfield has overlapped the objects to create a crowded composition which contrasts strongly with Craig-Martin's sparse image.

Craig-Martin was born in Dublin in 1941 but grew up in Washington DC. He studied Fine Art at Yale University and moved back to Britain in 1966.

Between 1974 and 1988 he taught at Goldsmiths' College, London, where his students included Britart stars Gary Hume, Julian Opie, Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Fiona Rae.

ResourcesInhaleExhale Exhibition catalogue: Manchester City Galleries Michael Craig-Martin: Prints Exhibition catalogue: Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

James Sharp is art co-ordinator at Elmhurst Primary School, London borough of Newham

Key stage 1

With very young children the painting could be the starting point for a memory game. One or two objects could be covered at a time and they have to remember what's missing.

Objects could be cut out of catalogues or magazines and rearranged into a still-life picture.


Collect a set of everyday objects similar to those used by the artist for pupils to make observational drawings. Explore a range of different media, including oil pastels and chalk. Pupils can then cut out their drawings and rearrange them into a new composition. Alternatively, by making a stencil of one object and cutting it out in a variety of colours, they could create a composition in which colour theory can be explored - for example, which colour combinations work well together or create the strongest contrasts.

Both activities should generate a lot of discussion and language work.

KS3 and 4

The artist's style is similar to computer-generated imagery. Using a programme such as PhotoShop, pupils could create their own compositions using drawings scanned on to the computer or downloaded from a digital camera.

This idea could be explored further by transferring the images photographically on to silk screens. Pupils could then make a series of screen prints that explore composition and colour.

By studying other works by Craig-Martin, older pupils could investigate the significance of the artist's choice of objects. Many of them are references to famous works of art - for example Marcel Duchamp's urinal, Rene Magritte's pipe and Jasper Johns' can of paintbrushes.

The inclusion of a fire extinguisher in many of Craig-Martin's works is thought to be a reference to the artist himself. Pupils could discuss this and decide what object they would choose to represent themselves.

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