Richard Deacon @ Tate Britain

Modern sculptures don’t just present the object itself in three dimensions, changing shape and perspective and emotional resonance as you walk around it; the works – whether they be curved and shapely or angular and sharp – also embroil the air around them, ramifying into the surrounding space, revealing potential angles and sightlines off in all directions, creating new shapes in the emptiness.

Although a number of other category systems suggest themselves, for me the works on display in this retrospective of Richard Deacon’s 40-year career could be easily divided into ones which opened up the surrounding space, creating a meta-sculpture beyond the sculpture, sculpting the emptiness – and ones which seemed tight, costive, self-contained and limiting. As my adjectives suggest, I preferred the former and didn’t like the latter.

Deacon has experimented widely with different materials – wood, metal, linoleum and fabrics. His pieces are big. One piece can easily fill a room. Three can just about be squeezed in.

The works

Untitled #1 (1977) (on the left in this photo) A trapezoid shape made from wooden fence posts to create a hollow box. In its use of a simple material – wood posts – and the simplicity of shape it reminded me of New York minimalism and Arte Povera, both of which have a room at Tate Modern.

Blind, Deaf and Dumb A (1985) The highlight of room two, a thirty foot long loop of wood laminated together to create a lovely long, low playful loop of wood, subtly joined and reinforced with metal staples. I wanted to jump through the loops. I wanted to run along it running my hands over the shapes and then flying off into the air.

By contrast Lock (1990) uses the same idea of strips of laminated wood, but here it has become rather baroque, the sculpture itself more complicated as it is now two pieces, looking rather like giant dog muzzles or horse bridles, which have become interlocked in an intricate way. To me this lacked all the freedom and generosity of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb. Also the clean Habitat/Ikea feel of the naked wood in the former piece has been overlaid with heavy metal plating lining the interior surfaces. Where Blind and Deaf felt free and liberated, this felt plated, locked down. A giant chastity belt.

Similarly Struck Dumb (1988) looked like an enormous metal curled-up woodlouse. I wanted to bang some drumsticks on it to make it creative, soft, emanate some life. Instead it squatted like an enormous metal blister lopsiding the room.

Big and entirely made out of metal was Mammoth (1989). Another visitor told me he thought it looked like a whale, with a big plashing tail at the back. I thought it looked like a tortured ventilation shaft, and ventilation shaft which had been taken for a made spin.

Room 4 was devoted to the Art For Other People series of smaller works designed to be bought and installed in a domestic setting. According to RD’s website there are currently 46 of these of which about eight were on display. Combinations of lino and stone, fabric and metal, wood and leather, quirky one-off creations, fabrications, which prompt and puzzle. The most obvious question is, Which of the eight here would you have in your house? Reluctantly, I think, none.

After 1998 is the poster boy of the show, a big room-filling sculpture that is basically a wooden flume that curves round in a long flowing loop, like a giant snake. Wood is good. It feels like the most accessible material on show. The piece has a primal, phallic, serpentine, animal power. Organic metaphors flood the mind as the shape itself dominates the space and creates sparks, offshoots, further invisible slinkinesses ramifying out in all directions.

Which was the exact opposite of Waiting For The Rain (2002), a sort of giant flint made from terracotta. Though the material ought to be warm and organic, the actual shape and its presence were cold, costive, constipated, unflowing, uptight.

The same was true, only more so, of Tropic (2007), an angular chunk of glazed ceramic which looked like a bit of set design from Star Trek. I usually like uncomfortable angular art, but I found something about the dripping dark glazed colours and the geometric shapes profoundly unsympa, unsettling, upsetting.

And even when the looping tumbling theme from earlier works was continued in something like Out Of Order (2003) – a kind of giant wood shaving gone mad – for me it lacked the warm smiling mood of the earlier works.

Conclusion

I wish there had been more. I’d have liked to have seen more pieces in the hope that I’d have felt positively and warmly about more of them. As it was, the warmth and openness of the large, expansive wood pieces was a bit too swamped by the cold, heartless baroque of the more metal and overelaborate pieces.

Fascinating and thought-provoking show.

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