Alongside Tony Cragg and Richard Wentworth, Richard Deacon is one of the protagonists of what could be called the ‘New British Sculpture’ of the early 80s where a series of organic shapes establish a dialogue to the mechanistic aspects of minimalist repetition and objectualism. While Cragg heads with his axial sculptures towards totemism, Deacon seems to deconstruct that same totem by making the link between the body and fear explicit. This transforms Deacon into one of the most British british artists around. I am saying this because British people at my gym barely sweat which makes me uncomfortable because I am always drenched in my own sweat. But when I asked about this to an Italian trainer, she said: ‘it is because the British are not in touch with their own bodies’. According to Deacon, she might have a point.
Since February 5th, Tate Britain is having a retrospective of his work where we are given a glimpse into, on one hand, the rather erudite influences that inform his work and, on the other, his creation/design process through a series of sketches and drawings. As usual Apollo Magazine’s criticism of the show (by Zoe Pilger) puts the emphasise in that Courtauld-like obsession with allusions and influences. An example of Pilger’s idiosyncratic focus is the following: ‘Deacon is fascinated with The Sonnets of Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, which inspired him to create a series of drawings in the late 1970s. It’s Orpheus When There’s Singing Number 7 is a graceful work in graphite and pastel on paper of 1978-9’. Of course, what we get from artist, according to Apollo Magazine, should be ‘grace’ and ‘fascinations’. Bollocks!
I am saying ‘Bollocks!’ because the problem with this is that injects a narrative (or allegorical) aspect to his woks that is contradicted by the obvious minimalist influence that his shapes have. How would Pilger explain that? Can be ‘fascinated’ with narrative and objectuality, at the same time? Of course not. So we need a completely different approach and I think that this show is a wonderful window into the very parodical relationship that the English have with their own bodies.
After seeing this retrospective, I had to force myself to stop thinking of Deacon as what he says he is and think about him as the purveyor of a series of guilty pleasure which like big aerodynamic donuts and eschatological shapes brings the visitor back to the tradition of surrealism. His seminal After (1998) is a large scale, serpentine sculpture comprised of a long wooden tubular structure that curves along the floor, connected from end to end by a steel strap. When asked about it he says, ‘I think it is about life and death’. ‘The kind of tension between something that’s stiff and something that moves around. The steel bit is bright, so it’s alive, whereas the wooden bit is matte so it’s dead’. Although the tension between stasis and movement is one of the defining principles of contemporary British sculpture, the inspiration for this piece is (oh surprise!) according to Apollo’s Zoe Pilger a XVII century French painting Nicholas Poussin and his ‘Landscape with a Man killed by a Snake’ (1648) which, to summarise, clinically represents the different stages of the human reaction (through facial expressions) to fear. So there seems to be a problematisation of change and, most importantly, time in Deacon’s pieces that differentiates him from both the minimalist sense of ‘la durée’ through repetition that we have in Donald Judd and minimalism, to begin with and, of course, in the neo-classical Tony Craggian approach to the sculpture as an object in a axis that can only be seen in the round (as in Bernini or Gianbologna).
Born in Bangor, in 1949, Deacon moved around as a child because his father was in the Air Force and the influence of aircraft design is obvious in the armature aspects of his work. But when learning that his mother was a doctor, everything becomes more clear. It is as if Deacon was a sponge who absorbed a very broad education and expressed it through form. However, instead of reacting to it, he decided to embrace it and the result is of an uncanny abjection. There is a fascination with surfaces, the skin and the biological anatomy of things that make his works profoundly eschatological as if we are looking at foetuses in formaldehyde or feces in the toilet before flashing. The relationship between a viewer and one of his pieces is always tactile. But I do not just want to touch a works like Struck Dumb (1988). Instead I want to caress it and there is something very sexual but dark, at the same time.
One could simplify the whole interpretation (as Apollo Magazine does) and conclude that these shapes are influenced not only by Poussin and Homer (not less), but they also draw from the Air Force designs of his engineer father and the awareness of the human form by of his doctor mother. However, this does not explain the sensual abjection of this works. There is something tactile and sleazy in these works that goes deeper.
I personally believe that that sense of sleaze and uncanniness comes from the incestuous eroticism felt by the son in a family that considered it normal both to be totally naked at home and to move around. The paradoxical nature of being naked and working for the Air Force and of being naked while having a peripatetic life injected a sense of incestuous eroticism in Deacon’s work. This is nonchalantly confirmed by the artists himself when saying ‘My parents were not particularly self-conscious, so they used to walk around the house naked. I was always quite aware of their bodies’. It is from this point of view that it would be helpful to see this retrospective from the point of view of the relationship of modern life, the body and migration. Poussin, in Deacon’s case, is without any doubt an excuse to rationalise and detach himself from the fears that the sexual revolution and possibly the hippie movement brought into a whole generation of people. Just a thought.