Richard Deacon at Tate Britain

Filed in Reviews by on March 4, 2014

Richard Deacon

Tate Britain

5 February to 27 April 2014


Richard Deacon was born in 1949 in Bangor in Wales and studied at the Somerset College of Art, Saint Martin’s, where he concentrated on performance work rather than object-making, and the Royal College of Art. His first solo exhibition took place in 1978 and he came to prominence in the 1980’s as a member of the New British Sculpture movement, along with other luminaries such as Tony Cragg, Rachel Whiteread, and Anish Kapoor, with frequent exhibitions of his work at the Lisson Gallery. Deacon was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1984 and won it in 1987. He has undertaken numerous commissions for large scale permanent public installations.

This exhibition is a major retrospective of Deacon’s work. Deacon has stated that he prefers to describe himself as a fabricator rather than a sculptor and much of his work does nothing to hide the methods of fabrication or the materials used, with rivets, bolts and copious quantities of glue being intrinsic parts of the work.

Although Deacon’s sculptures are invariably abstract, they are highly organic and metaphorical, referencing natural shapes, whole organisms, limbs, sense organs and orifices. The earliest works shown in the exhibition include drawings made while he was in the US, and without the benefit of a studio in which he could make objects. The drawings explored the notions of space, enclosure and ingress and prefigured one strand of his later work, for example, his Struck Dumb from 1982, the form of which appears to allude to a mouth gagged by a sheet of steel.

Deacon frequently uses laminated wood in his work, a material which he imbues with great energy and momentum. Many of his forms are slender and sinuous and describe spaces that they do not fully occupy, so that there is an interplay between scale and emptiness, solidity and delicacy. Others are muscular and powerful, almost fizzing, humming and trembling with pent-up energy, reminding me of the Futurists and their obsession with speed and dynamic movement. For me, these are among the most exciting pieces in the exhibition.

There are also smaller, more intimate, pieces intended for domestic settings, made with a variety of materials. These seemed less significant and artistically successful to me, certainly in the coldness and blankness of the gallery, and I do not think that this is a mere reaction to their smaller scale. Perhaps one would have to live with them to learn to love them.

As is frequently the case with sculpture, especially abstract sculpture, it is difficult to feel that one can  describe entirely satisfactorily, perhaps even adequately, the objects displayed in this exhibition and the feelings they evoke. But I certainly came away from this exhibition with a greater appreciation and admiration of Richard Deacon’s oeuvre and its place in British sculpture.

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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