wall painting

Art students on Martin Creed

Posted December 27, 2012

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Martin Creed
Work No. 1378 over Work No. 1351 (both 2012)
Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York
Installation view, Martin Creed Plays Chicago, MCA Chicago, 2012
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

In April, three Painting and Drawing MFA students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago enjoyed the unique opportunity to meet with Creed and serve as studio assistants in the creation of several painted works for the residency project. The students assisted in painting the album artwork for a special edition vinyl album Creed recorded while in Chicago as well as several canvases going on display at the MCA this year. Two of the students, Seth Hunter and Ceyda Aykan, share their experiences with Creed below.

Two students, Martin, and Martin’s assistant Rob, went for tea. Sitting for three and a half hours, we discussed: portraits not landscapes, smiling not frowning, sick film not well film, balloon work not raisin work, certified art not anonymous art, how children are smart and sneaky not how children are stupid and obvious, drinking too much not drinking too little, vomiting not eating, psychoanalysis not psycho-complacency, therapy not illness, TV not books, parents and children, being a little bad not being a little good. Two students, Martin, and Martin’s assistant Rob got up and went home.

—Seth Hunter

I think the charm of Martin’s work is its communication with and directness to the viewer. It has playfulness and ambiguity in just the perfect amount to create some space for the viewer to breathe in and play with the work. Martin’s works possess a certain attitude, as if they just happened by themselves, as if they are just natural. When you look at them you don’t necessarily picture them being made, but rather like plants growing by themselves just with enough water and light.

This is not an easy feeling to capture or an easy task to accomplish. Whether it is a neon sign, a huge installation, or the entire surface of a wall covered with patterns, Martin’s work is never under- or overdone. It is always just enough. The work becomes almost transparent because the viewer is able to experience the idea and the playfulness of the process of creation itself.

—Ceyda Aykan

Dan Gunn is an artist, writer, and educator working in Chicago.

Martin Creed: “Work No. 798,” 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.

Mr. Creed tends to make small gestures. These two wall paintings Work No. 798 (2007) and Work No. 1349 (2012) must first have had a hidden existence as a few lines of text on copy paper, possibly printed out from an e-mail. Following this map a museum installation crew carefully laid out the diagonal lines with a ruler and a pencil. Then later they filled them in with a paint roller while standing on a ladder or a pneumatic scissor lift.

Given their origins as “work-to-be-done,” the black lines in No. 798 and the red squares in No. 1349 are painted so as to be painfully matter of fact. The sparse construction of the work gives little evidence of Mr. Creed personally. In fact I’ve seen sponge painting in truck-stop bathrooms that provokes more empathy from me. But it’s not about that. To criticize these in terms of aesthetics would be like complaining that the concrete sidewalk is gray. Sure, you could do it, but what would be the point?

The patterns themselves are too simple to be revelatory. Again, this is not interior decor. What the patterns are is visually disorienting. In Michel Pastoureau’s book on the cultural history of stripes, The Devil’s Cloth, he notes that the medieval association of stripes with the devil drove their use to mark heretics, the diseased, and prisoners. Later, the artists of the European avant garde adopted the stripe again for those same rebellious connotations. Stripes themselves still have a complicated social meaning.

Again from Pastoureau,

To stripe a surface . . . serves to distinguish it, to point it out, to oppose it or associate it with another surface, and thus to classify it, to keep an eye on it, to verify it, even to censor it.

[but . . .]

In the stripe, there is always something that resists enclosure within systems, something that brings with it distress and confusion, something that “makes disorder.1

These two works are not about Mr. Creed’s emotional state, nor are they about some other metaphor, and they are decidedly not aesthetic. In all of his interventions Mr. Creed flirts with blankness, with artworks that are so sparse as to not seem like art.

Mr. Creed’s stripes or boxes do not extend to touch the edges of the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. Nor do they interrupt the wall labels, light fixtures, exhaust registers, or donor lists. The pattern politely pushes at the edges of the wall. Mr. Creed’s intervention is about filling space—the visual activation of a two-dimensional wall space for no other reason. These works mark a familiar, anonymous space with a hint of disorder.


1 Michel Pastoureau, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes, trans. Jody Gladding (New York: Simona and Schuster, 2003), 89–91.

Abraham Ritchie works at the MCA and is an art critic and historian.

“That’s the thing about a rhythm; it’s reliable because it happens at predictable intervals, you know. But exactly the fact that it’s reliable helps you then to be in this big mess. You know, so those works that use repeated motifs or with intervals between them fulfill the function of giving me basically something like a handrail to hold onto on in constantly ever-changing world.” – Martin Creed

Ships slowly arrive at a harbor, dock, and unload. The sequence repeats. A ziggurat of boxes (perhaps unloaded from a ship), made of large to progressively smaller boxes, rises from the floor. Handmade squares checker a wall across from another wall, where stripes regularly divide the space. In the works by Martin Creed on view in the museum, the artist alludes to the way our lives are reliably regulated by day-to-day activity: transportation (Work No. 405), commerce (Work No. 916), and labor (Work No. 798 and Work No. 1349). The sum total of these actions, the titular work, allows things (a favorite word of Creed’s; see Work No. 845) to be brought from here to there, to be exchanged, to be made. It is this kind of stability and structure that the recent NATO protests in Chicago called into question. At whose expense does this stability come? Creed describes the world as a “big mess,” and his work reminds us of the importance of reliability.