What happens to a sculptor who, as Richard Deacon admits, always “found weight a little bit disgusting”? For millennia, sculpture meant weight: marble, bronze, stone, carved into figures standing on plinths that were heavy with the pressure of history.
That changed in the mid-20th century but innovators such as David Smith and Anthony Caro still worked in iron and steel. Reacting against them came a British generation with a tread so light that they did not seem like sculptors at all. In the late 1980s – the era of British heavy industry’s terminal decline – four of these won the Turner Prize in consecutive years: the “living sculptures” Gilbert and George; Richard Long, the land artist who recorded going for walks; Tony Cragg, then famous for his wall-mounted junk-plastic map “Britain Seen from the North”, commenting on economic hardship; and, least known and still hardest to pin down, Richard Deacon.
Even more than Gilbert and George and Long, who both incorporate text into their works, Deacon uses language: as inspiration for his abstracted sculptures, and as their subject. His new retrospective at Tate Britain, his first major show for 25 years, begins with a group of drawings built up from ruled lines, arcs, circles and spirals into a mesh of fine graphite marks at once geometric and free-flowing. Made in 1979 and titled “It’s Orpheus When There’s Singing”, after sonnets by Rilke, these curvilinear forms, turning on the tension between inside/outside, suggest open orifices. They became the basis for the wooden sculptures, willowy and rhythmic as drawings in space, such as “Blind Deaf and Dumb”, with which Deacon established his name in the 1980s.
Large-scale but delicate, these airy, enigmatic works – constructed from thin strips of laminated wood into complex linear forms, sometimes interlocking like jigsaw puzzles – are variations on what Deacon called a “hollow enclosure with an opening that seemed to be able to stand for either a mouth or an ear”. Sensuous organic curves contrast with precisely engineered construction: oozes of glue, protruding screws and bolts emphasise the works’ manufactured status, with physicality grounded in humdrum materials set against lyrical titles – transposing the ordinary.
The three-metre “Tall Tree in the Ear”, for example, consists of concentric wooden loops partly covered in a creased blue canvas sleeve, suggesting rippling sky, flowing water. The title comes from some Rilke lines in “Orpheus” and Deacon likens his constructions to Rilke’s poetry, which “didn’t have a poetic language but was assembled from something everyday, and it was just the way of putting it together that created meaning.”
From the domestic-scaled abstract series “Art For Other People” – begun in 1983 in mixed media and evoking trumpets, horns, ears, lips – to “Fold” (2012), a green ceramic sculpture of glazed polygonal bricklike units stacked into clustered towers that resemble freestanding folding screens, Deacon’s hybrid forms are democratic, inclusive, non-hierarchical. No part of any sculpture draws attention more than any other, and the experience of each work changes as you walk around or examine it. Thus the irregularly arranged slabs in “Fold”, which weighs 12 tons, appear to shift and dissolve when you circle it. “Struck Dumb” (1988), an unusual venture into steel, is a squat, black, bulbous form with a rust-red opening; it looks like solid steel but when you peer inside, it is hollow – a lament for the loss of Britain’s industrial base.
Solid/void, in/out, organic/geometric, soft/hard: Deacon’s sculptural vocabulary is based on contradictions. The most successful pieces turn on a paradox by which the laborious working processes of steaming, stretching, bending wood are laid bare but the result is light, graceful, flexible. Rising off the ground as if with pent-up energy, “Out of Order” (2003) is a seven-metre voluptuous spiral of giant wood shavings, curling like ribbons, their surfaces darkened to a mottled black caused by tannin coming out of the oak when it is heated.
“After” (1998), the exhibition’s showstopper, is yet more complex. Coils of bent wood, glued and screwed into interlocking curves, the hollow tubes changing angles from one section to the next, writhe or hurtle or stretch for nine metres along the floor, suggesting by turns the open ribs of a snake, the skeleton of a rollercoaster, an undulating landscape. A rigid stainless steel strap forms a spine running through the centre, its taut line opposing the lively, open wooden forms, and allowing shifting plays of light on wood and metal.
Transformation may be the theme of this sprawling, menacing creation, which laconically challenges the equilibrium of the rest of the show, just as the serpent wrapped around the inert body of a man in the corner of Poussin’s “Man Killed by a Snake”, one of Deacon’s sources, turns a classical landscape into a study of fear.
But circularity is another motif: especially in the monumental works here, such as the repeated baroque motifs in “After” and “Fold”, Deacon’s structures insistently lead you back to where you started.
Deacon’s entire oeuvre is like this: although the works look open, they belong to a closed system of allusions to poetry, of self-references to their own making, which is difficult, hermetic. The political/social agenda of Gilbert and George, Richard Long’s version of British pastoral, are easily accessible in comparison. What, in the end, are Deacon’s works about?
Ultimately, I suppose, the unstable nature of perception and communication. Deacon calls himself a fabricator – but even that modesty is ambiguous because, as he says and as these strange, elusive works proclaim, “I quite like the idea that a fabrication can be something made up rather than truth.”
Richard Deacon, Tate Britain, London to April 27, tate.org.uk