Curator Lucinda Middleton explores the work of sculptor Richard Deacon ahead of a new major exhibition of his work at MOMA Machynlleth.
Richard Deacon’s work is about exploring materials. While this is true of other sculptors it is central to Deacon’s work – the form of the work is not the reason for the material, the chosen material is the reason for the final form of the work.
Alongside this is the importance of not hiding construction and supports – the fabrication of the work is part of its aesthetic. The surface of the chosen material is often finished in such a way that there is no doubt as to what it is, although Deacon does sometimes experiment with colour; for example in ceramic glazes and powder coated steel, but even here it is these materials that are of prime interest. In 2012 he commented on some recent works: “I’d like to think that the surfaces not only fit the works, but are the works.”
A selection of sculptures which demonstrate just some of the materials he has explored include: wood and steel in Turning A Blind Eye Again (1988), welded PVC in Pack (1990), textured steel in Infinity #16 (2001), glazed ceramic in Border Traffic (2004), the use of copper in The Start of Something (2015). These examples help to demonstrate another important aspect to Deacon’s work: the use of a mix of repeating elements in different groupings, sizes and orientation. He imposes limits on the forms and numbers of repeats to achieve the desired result. This can lead, over time, to a series of works addressing many permutations such as the Infinity, Gap, and Shiver My Timbers series.
Titles are another integral part of Deacon’s work; he chooses words which “are both active and passive. They both are nouns and verbs or adjectives.” Weather, for example, can be interpreted both in terms of atmospheric conditions but also represents fortitude, to weather the storm, as well as being the effect of leaving something outside in the elements.
Deacon explains Mire in terms of “there could be a subtext of personal difficulty involved (which is not the case, it’s more to do with the complexity of the relationship between words, things, phenomena and feelings – between outside and inside if you like).”
In order to realise his work Deacon likes to collaborate with others with expertise in wood, metal and ceramics. This is not a simple relationship of producing a piece from an artist’s maquette or drawing but a true exchange of ideas which strongly influences how the finished piece looks. For the sculptures in this exhibition that collaborator is Matthew Perry who creates the steam bent and twisted wood elements with which he and Deacon then work.
The wood lengths are steamed in bundles of 25 which are laminated together; the complementary bends create a particular fluidity. The early evolution of Deacon’s use of laminated wood can be seen back in the 1980s with two untitled works. The development of the more tightly twisted elements takes longer to appear and is particularly notable as part of Uhmm (2000).
Under The Weather 2 (2016) and Under The Weather 3 (2017) have developed directly from Under The Weather 1 (2016), now owned by San Diego Museum of Art and exhibited in his major show there in 2017. Mire, which is discussed in more detail by Richard Deacon further on in this booklet is derived from works such as Still Waters (2009) and I Remember 1-3 (2012).
The twisting and connecting of elements has reached a high level of intricacy in the Under The Weather sculptures shown at MOMA. The rhythm of the repeats is still there but less obvious amongst the many twists and junctions which give staccato interjections into the overall flow. In the Under The Weather works there is a drawing out of the twists of wood from each other in a lengthening process, creating elongated, sinuous strands which continue to twist and turn over the top and across the floor in a selection of repeated patterns. The forms give shape to the interior space in the sculpture, a key element in Deacon’s work, which creates interest in the gaps as well as the structure itself. Another striking aspect is the way the finished sculptures appear light and airy, defying the weight of the wood that they are made from.
Mire on the other hand is very grounded and weighty despite the openings in the network of wood. Under The Weather 1 and 2 give a sense of a continuous line curving over and under, a theme often found in his work. In Under The Weather 3 there is the introduction of a leg, reminiscent of Before The Mast (2015) which also has ends in a leg, however on Under The Weather 3 the leg stops short of the floor creating a tension not seen in the other pieces.
Some of Deacon’s ideas have come from a rejected private commission for a sculpture suspended in an atrium where descending lengths of twisted timber drop down from the overhead structure but not all of them the floor.
The idea I’d proposed for the commission had been for a set of timber arches forming a grid across the space and sprung from the side walls. At the intersections of the grid, twisted timber elements were carried on downwards, some shorter than others but in two or three places reaching the ground and providing stability. An analogy might be that of stalactites growing from the roof of a cave down to the floor. ….. after visiting the space in early summer of 2015 I knew that springing arches off the walls was impractical (and by then also that my interest was really in the ‘drop down’ elements). These elements were composed of multiple twisted bundles of wood and this is what we had started making, using divisions and separations in the bundles to provide sets of rhythms that, to my mind are associated with falling rain or drifting cloud. This is the work we have been developing (not at all linearly!) and two major works have resulted Under The Weather #1, now in the collection of San Diego Museum of Art, and Under The Weather #2, completed last year and to be shown for the first time in Machynlleth.
Viewing the works together in the Sculpture Space allows comparisons to be brought into focus simply because they are sharing the same gallery. The earth-bound qualities of Mire are emphasized by the height and airiness of Under The Weather 2 and 3. The viewer looks down on Mire, having to bend to see the vertical structure within, while the other two works soar upwards at over 3 metres high. The flowing nature of the twists and turns of the taller works accentuate Mire’s regimented patterns, fixed in place and made static by the uniform grids of steel.
There is also the opportunity to notice the many differences between the two Under The Weather works. Under The Weather 2 has great continuity, allowing the viewer to see the movement as either rising or falling, this is an overall sense of something flexible brought to a stop, as if draped of an invisible support or frozen mid flow. In Under The Weather 3 however this flow is interrupted where the top suddenly stops and where the free leg reaches for the floor, once again frozen but with a strong sense of it reaching downwards. Another of the legs is constructed of repeating curves which lengthen as they descend, again giving a feel of a downward, fluid motion stopped in time.
A notable detail in these laminated works is that the holes where screws have been inserted have been carefully plugged with wood. Is this a move away from the usual exposed fastenings in Deacon’s work? I asked him and received this interesting reply: “Several reasons: there are holes that result from the screws used to temporarily hold things whilst in fabrication, these I fill as a matter of course, there the sunken screw heads which I fill partially because I think they are distracting and partially to give an added security, preventing the screw working loose.
Then there is something a bit more ineffable, gradually the surface has become important and I have become to think that it should be unbroken, not that I want the trace of work done removed, but rather that it all happens on one surface – the filling is to bring things back to that level.” This is a subtle evolution in Deacon’s work; surface has always been an important consideration, as I’ve already mentioned, now it takes the primary role with the sites of the fixings creating interesting patterns of tiny circles interrupting the flow of the wood grain. If one imagines how the sinuous curves would look with so many little holes in the surfaces it is easy to see that this would seriously detract from the desired effect of rhythm and controlled patterns.
To find out about upcoming exhibitions and events at MOMA Machynlleth visit their website.
Lucinda Middleton is an art curator and contributor to Wales Arts Review.