Richard Deacon’s sculptures turn and twist and coil and flow. Sometimes they are solid ceramic geometries, whose weight and density can almost be felt with the eye. Others you can see right through, as if they were lines drawn in space, or the carcass of an animal, or a boat stripped to the ribs. They can be like physical X-rays. Some are like body parts or shells. Others are more like a place, somewhere you could crawl into and hide.
His sculptures can look like a piece of bespoke factory ducting or the sloughed skin of a reptile, a curled-up woodlouse or an enlarged virus. They writhe and squat, rear over you or twist across the floor with a complex baroque rhythm. Steaming and coiling various kinds of wood, bending metal in several directions without it buckling, making ceramic flop and bulge like rope or a length of gut, Deacon can make his materials do things they aren’t meant to do.
Sometimes I am left scratching my head as I try to work out the symmetries and bifurcations, the odd conjunctions and interpenetrations, and find my way through all the associations that keep springing up. But what strikes me first is both the sinuousness of his work and the complexity of its manufacture. Deacon has described himself as a fabricator rather than a modeller or carver. Walking among his sculptures in the Linbury Galleries at Tate Britain, where an exhibition opens to the public on Wednesday, the eye keeps snagging on all the bolts and exposed screw-threads, the metal plates and braces, the congealed patches of glue that have oozed out of Deacon’s laminated layers of wood, hardboard, lino and other materials.
There are forms here that almost escape comprehension, and which feel like spacial conundrums. In his work movement and stasis, volume and gravity, openness, closure and conjunction come together in all kinds of inventive, unexpected and surprising ways. His sculpture is generative. When Deacon started out in the mid-1970s, after spells at the Royal College of Art and the then world-famous St Martins School of Art Sculpture Department, he didn’t have much money. Like other sculptors of his generation, the rubbish skip was a key source of materials. While this led some, like Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg, to make bricolage works from abandoned washing machines or plastic detritus, Deacon fashioned what came to hand into elegant, basket-like structures, laminate swooping shapes and a kind of tensile three-dimensional drawing. He pressed and stretched timber, scuffed lino and other found materials into forms that resembled ears, truncated tunnels, shells and organic forms that remind us of the natural world and our own bodies, as well as their mundane, humble origins in the everyday.
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