Richard Deacon: Ideas, Physical Materials And The Process Of Manufacture

One of the earliest winners of the Turner Prize in 1987, three years after its inception, Richard Deacon bridges the gap between art-making in the strictest, most traditionalist sense, and the pure conceptualism that has come to define the Prize today.

Though referred to in literature (and this Tate Britain exhibition) as a sculptor, Deacon himself prefers the term manufacturer, being the creator of an idea which is then physically realised by teams of expert craftsmen specific to each ‘idea’s requirement. Like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and – most pertinently – Martin Creed (winner of the Turner prize in 2001 for Work No. 227, the lights going on and off, currently enjoying a retrospective at the Hayward), Deacon is the conceiver of the idea executed by someone else. What marks him apart from these however, is the critical importance and admiration directed towards the physical materials and process of manufacture. Indeed, a primary concern of this show is to detail the range of materials Deacon was interested in. Though loosely chronologically sequenced, I am loathe to call this a retrospective as the works are by nature exceptionally large and thus constraining in the number which can be included, hindering the possibility of a coherent developmental arc being formed. The focus instead is firmly upon the magnificent physical qualities that can be realised through skilful manipulation of materials. It is the most rewarding artists who have the ability to change the viewer’s attentiveness to the world around them, to see with a greater visual absorption. I am willing then to forgive the Tate’s lack of curatorial intervention – there are no captions to any of the rooms or pieces – when the works here have that elusive and compelling power.

Indeed, the lack of captions is a daring and welcome aversion to spoonfeeding interpretation or explanation to the viewer; a cynic’s argument against conceptual art is often that the curator is forced to provide (but most often) invent an interpretation to make the work accessible or even valid. All text here is confined to a mini booklet which provides some indicators. The first room shows drawings from Deacon’s year spent in the United States in 1978. They are explained in the booklet as responses to his reading Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which is just as well, because they so much resemble plan designs for the three dimensional sculptures displayed nearby that without the booklet this important distinction would never have been made independently by the viewer. Given this indication, we are thus invited to look for the anamorphic qualities Deacon imbued in the drawings, composed of swirling curves and arcs not unlike mathematical graphs, deliberately resembling ears, eyes, mouths, or even the openings of wind instruments. They provide excellent introduction to the following works, similarly created by careful mathematical calculation and bearing a shared sense of linearity and overall aesthetic shape. They also facilitate a rewarding visual contrast, appearing fluid, feathery, layered and comprised of innumerable overlapping lines resembling more chaos than net drawing, providing counterpart to the solid, defined mass of the physical sculptures. Though they are not net models themselves, they nonetheless highlight an often forgotten interplay between the dimensions, that the sculptures are in fact two dimensional plans having been ‘transformed’ into solids.

The booklet’s introduction attributes Deacon’s sense of materiality to “a deep-rooted interest that stems from his reading of poetic, philosophical and other texts”, and the Orpheus drawings are a prime example. They are however, the only example in this show as no further connections to literature are made; from then on the audience is very much on its own. This actually turns out to be to the shows benefit, for to intellectualise the pieces in such a manner would do a disservice to their compelling visual qualities and, dare I say it, beauty. A sequence of works made of laminated wood from the early 1980s appear weightless despite their size and bulk, an outline of intertwining slats that have been treated and warped with precision and not a little difficulty. Comprised of interlocking lines, Blind Deaf and Dumb A (1985) continues the same linearity from the previous drawings, and suggest any number of objects: an octopus; an elaborate coathanger; female reproductive organs; an upside down moose head. Immediately we are struck by the number of other items this object suggests the form of, rather than trying to decipher its deliberate meaning or invisible content. With such prevalence of physical appearance, one is more inclined to marvel at how it stays upright, how it was made, the natural colourings of the wood and the irregular markings of the wood glue. As with the most skilled craftsman of any discipline, we are treated to physical examples of the very technical extremes and possibilities that can be reached using this medium.

Similarly, the strikingly weighty-looking Struck Dumb (1988) is a hulking mass of steel constructed by Govan Shipbuilders in Glasgow. An enormous, smoothed almost red blood cell-like round blob, the shipbuilders traces are clearly evident in the way its skin of faceted sheets have been so cleanly welded. It resembles something organic, we imagine it would deflate if punctured. That its extremities are severed with harsh, sharply flat surfaces instead abruptly counters this organic feel, creating stimulating interplay between surface textures and expectations. We consider its welded joints as an aesthetic decoration rather than strictly functional, examining and admiring more closely the hand-made element in their irregularity than we would consider, say, the welds of an actual ship. We even wonder how heavy it is, and then how thick or thin this skin is, and in turn wonder how this relates to building a ship and all the parts this entails. Consider the nave ceiling in Lincoln Cathedral (begun 1088): we forget that human hands made this imposing, solid and centuries- defying building until we see the ‘crazy’ ceiling, where someone miscalculated the maths and thoroughly messed up the stonework pattern. A product of Deacon’s work therefore is to programme the audience to more closely consider and admire the beautiful construction gone into functional (and large scale) objects; that crucial composite parts themselves are aesthetically pleasing and integral to the structure and totally at the mercy of the human hand.

This exhibition with its lessaiz-faire attitude to curating is surprisingly accessible to viewers for this exact reason; it invites viewers simply to look closely, not just to look but to see. It is precisely because one doesn’t necessarily require intellectual points of reference to appreciate the works that makes the aesthetic admiration and curiosity at how they were constructed come to the fore. Perhaps most importantly, there is no distinct meaning decided by the creator to be deduced by the viewer. Instead, we can see innumerable parallels to the everyday objects around us, with suggestions that are subject to each of us individually. What is rare and indeed rewarding, is that we come away with a refreshed visual sensibility.

Words: Olivia McEwan Photo: Bernard Moutin @ Artlyst 2014

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