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Christoper Wool - Statements of Intent

Words:

Edd Norval
October 22, 2021

Christopher Wool is one of the most valuable artists of all time. His bold statements are crisp, clear, punchy and align with the zeitgeist. They have a broad appeal, yet are created with a sort of niche style - particularly for works residing in the ‘art world’, as opposed to where they could potentially look more at home in the streets.

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Text-based art tends to have its origins in either graphic design or in street art. Why? It’s because it’s impactful and instant, something that can be digested driving by, or glancing at a poster outside your local cinema. It has a point that it wants you to get. And quickly. 


Art based in galleries tends to reflect its environment, a space that’s designed for contemplation. There’s little ‘competition’ around for the viewer’s attention. Everything is minimal, shifting focus purely onto the featured art. That’s why, in this setting, Wool’s audacious phrases - often capitalised and stenciled in a monochromatic palette - seem so disruptive.


One of these pieces, 1990’s Untitled (RIOT) reads only those four letters, stacked two on two, in the typical format and style favoured by the artist, sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for $29.9 million. Two years before that, his 1988 Apocalypse Now, reading ‘SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS’ sold for $26.4 million.

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Wool is in-demand. His market is one of contemporary art’s most valuable and his contribution to art highly influential. Over time, the artist has also chosen to deconstruct the use of language and visual culture by creating more abstracted pieces, where words are unclear and obscured, scribbled over canvases washed with faint black paint.


The irreverence and humour of the art's textual work, influenced by the graffiti he saw on a van, becomes altogether more cerebral in the abstract works, where eventually words gave way completely to vague figures, like Rorschach ink blots whose meanings meander across the canvas. 


Whilst the two might seem detached from one another, they’re not at all. Thematically, Wool operates as an investigator into the use of words in an abstract manner. Framing the words as a grid, Wool obstructs their natural flow of legibility - which means most people often have to read them aloud to make sense of the scramble - utilising a word as a part of an abstract creation, as important for their shape as for their meaning, rather than in the traditional sense as a configuration of letters with a designated meaning.

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In his more immediately ‘abstract’ works, Wool pushes his deconstruction to its logical conclusion, pulling letters apart, smudging them and really making the audience work in divining their meaning. In this sense, Wool takes a shot at interrogating exactly what ‘meaning’ in art can and does represent and what part text and form plays in manufacturing that.


By remaining a fairly elusive figure - largely removed from the art world and revealing anything about his own intention or processes - Wool’s emphasis is clearly on the power of words in contemporary society, about their influences, origins and ability to be read in a variety of ways. In this mystery, Wool understands art at its very essence, something that elicits thought, is beautiful to some, whilst slandered as entirely banal to others. Pioneering, provocative and divisive. 

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