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Beauty in the ordinary
Even if you've never heard of Michael Craig-Martin, you would have seen him. Or rather, his art - the vivid, Warholian images of everything from coffee cups to iPhones, rendered in an eye-popping blaze of technicolour.
The conceptual artist and painter's first claim to fame is as Damien Hirst and Gary Hume's tutor at Goldsmiths College in London in the 1980s, inspiring their generation of Young British Artists (YBAs). But his legacy will be the deceptively simple graphic style that he developed and is now synonymous with - taking seemingly mundane objects and imbuing them with powerful imagery and posterity.
That imagery is all around the Gallery Hyundai in Seoul, where the 76-year-old Craig-Martin is holding his latest exhibition, All in All. This is the largest showing of his works since his 2015 show at London's Serpentine Gallery and features his signature stylised paintings of commonplace objects.
"This exhibition is a culmination of a few different strands of work that I've been dealing with in recent years," says Craig-Martin, his normally twinkling eyes turning serious for a moment. "As you get older as an artist, there's a sense of focus and clarity that comes with the passing of time. This exhibition shows that very clearly."
The significance he places on the mundane might seem odd but for Craig-Martin, these seemingly banal objects have an important purpose. "It became clear to me that it was impossible to talk about daily life without talking about these objects. They are the most ubiquitous part of everyday life," he explains.
He started drawing and painting everyday objects in the 1970s. An unintended consequence of this is that, with time, his practice has taken on an archaeological dimension. His earlier works are like time capsules, featuring objects like cassette tapes that have gradually become obscure over time. "I set out with this as an aim but without realising it, I have been the recorder of the histories of objects - of the things that come and go and the evolutions that happen with society that cause transformations in our objects."
Craig-Martin was born in Ireland and spent his earliest years in Britain during World War II. His family soon moved to the United States when his father got a job there. He spent his growing years there, acquiring an American twang in the process. He eventually studied Fine Art at the Yale School of Art and Architecture in the 1960s. That was the same time that pop art and minimalism were taking off, and the movements would prove to have a lasting impact on his practice.
Craig-Martin's graphic style and visual vocabulary can be easily traced back to a Warholian brand of pop art. But it makes his riotous works resoundingly maximalist, standing in stark contrast to the austere works of minimalists like Donald Judd.
"I know it doesn't seem intuitive at first, but my work is very influenced by the principles of minimalism," he explains. "I want to create a physical experience for the viewer where they feel the work not just with their eyes but with their whole bodies in relation to it."
Not for him the notion of paintings as something with hidden messages that require art history degrees to decipher.
"That's why I want my paintings to be so vivid, so clear and so unambiguous. I don't want you to ask: 'What does it mean?' I want you to be forced into a moment of confrontation. It's ironic that as the world seems to become only more visual with the Internet, our ability to look at things is diminishing. We use our eyes more and more but we're finding it harder and harder to look. In a world full of distraction, I'm trying to say: 'Here is a still moment - this moment.' I want them to appreciate it and be present in the now."
In these troubled times, Craig-Martin's colourful works are exuberant celebrations of the little things meant to be experienced and enjoyed for what they are. They are intended to be a reminder of looking at the present moment and finding the significance in what is already around us. "The meaning of life is right here. It's not at the top of the mountain. It's right in front of your face, but the trouble is that it's often the hardest place to focus."
Even so, Craig-Martin's work has not always been critically acclaimed. Halfway through the interview, he pulls out his 2015 book, On Being An Artist, and flips to a chapter where he has recorded every bit of criticism ever slung at him. He reads out the whole list, his lined face crinkling as he laughs his deep belly laugh. "I love this one! Number 608 (out of 612) in Tatler's list of "People who really matter", he guffaws. "I've been called a lot of things and it used to hurt but now I just think, hey at least I'm more important than four other people! Could have been worse!"
When he was a teenager, "I wanted to be Samuel Beckett. He was also born in Ireland, and he was epitome of post-war, high-minded, dark angst. But I was growing up in an American suburb in the 1950s and about as far away in my life experience from Beckett as you could imagine. It took me a long time to realise that you don't respect a hero by copying them. They didn't do that. They just did what they needed to do."
He adds: "All my teaching subsequently was based on that idea - that a person can only do what they can do. There's nothing you can do but - and I hate the saying but it's true - to be your own best self. To do that you have to trust yourself and respect your own abilities. You can only be who you are and do what you do."