Chicago

Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon

Donald Young Gallery

Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon are only one generation removed from Flanagan, but the differences between their approaches and his are striking. While Flanagan models clear distinctions in traditional materials with legible symbolism, Cragg and Deacon, members of a current export category of New British Sculpture, use heterogeneous materials to question assumptions of conventional sculpture and to demonstrate that materiality and legibility are at least questionable requirements. This carefully selected exhibition exposed the obvious differences between Cragg and Deacon, but it also allowed certain shared concerns to emerge, and the contingency of the two men’s work inspired new insights about each one. Fragmentation of image and surface is only the most noticeable of the shared concerns; fragmentation was in fact a primary idea in this group of work, both literally, as constituted in sculpture, and indirectly, as an aspect of contemporary life. Underlying this structural correspondence were both artists wry sense of humor and their dedication to homely materials, which smacks of a political critique. Sometimes one has the impression that an unconscious strategy may be to see just how hollow, false, or artificial one can make a three-dimensional object and still have it act as a serious, even elegant esthetic contribution.

Cragg has a long international-exhibition record and his roots in post-Minimalism and in the mapping techniques of earth works are invisibly inscribed in the seeming looseness of his arrangements and in his conceptual rigor. But one question this exhibit ion raised, beyond the more usual smokescreen of national characteristics, was how sculpture could annex ideas about the image that are current in painting without just returning to figuration. Does the fact that these objects are composed of discarded fragments (Cragg), or from unorthodox combinations of conventional materials with terribly mundane ones (marble and linoleum, say, in Deacon’s Art for Other People No. 16, 1985), make them once again engaging?

The title of Cragg’s striking African Sculpture Myth/Bamara, 1984, explains that this wall piece is itself a representation of sculpture, of an icon. Plastic shards are cleverly, punningly transformed into a kind of figurative language activated into recognizable forms. Mountain Lake without a Myth, 1985, is a collection of cantilevered, obviously hollow polyhedrons in laminated chipboard, laced together by a network of crayoned lines. Completely homogenizing the surface like a hair net, these lines hold everything in place and refer to the burnish marks and polished surfaces of David Smith’s “Cubi” series, 1963–65. Drawing on the surfaces also underscores the idea that the picturesque (the painter’s subject) and the crayon (the painter’s tool) can be claimed by the sculptor. With all its complicated architecture, the piece is also hollow; its seamlessness is as much an illusion as its bulk; its imagistic connections are as arbitrary and as artificially derived from pictorial models as are Cragg’s wall arrangements. The sun in this landscape, also covered with crayoning, was propped on one of its ledges, an aluminum doughnut made of heating-duct elbows.

Rainer Maria Rilke believed that “in the art of sculpture . . . it is left to the artist to make out of many things one thing, and from the smallest part of a thing an entirety.” The first part of this idea belongs with Cragg, the second with Deacon. Where Cragg’s works are held in place by our expectation and his bricolage, Deacon’s, in his first exhibition in the United States, are more laconic, more obedient in their adherence to the sculptural concerns of interior/exterior, open/enclosed. Loosely derived from readings of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and therefore related to the senses, these sculptures constitute a tenuous system of representation that begins with metaphor, depending as they do for structure on borrowings from figures of speech. They appear not completely stable, slightly off balance, suggesting a subtle, almost subliminal critique related to a personal politic. Fabricated from common materials, Deacon’s contraptions are antiheroic, anti-monumental, and formally and conceptually economic.

Despite its casual, blunt manufacture this work has an air of melancholy, and the images to which it refers are poignant. Following earlier pieces like The Eye Has It, 1984, and For Those Who Have Ears No. 2, 1983, two pieces in this exhibition deny those very gifts of sight and hearing. The largest object (and one of the oddest), Turning a Blind Eye No.2, 1985, is an over-5-foot-tall framework of three hoops of laminated Masonite pressed together with glops of escaping glue. A sad drape of cloth, a tremulous curtain, becomes the eyelid. Looking at this eye is disconcerting: it suggests an idiosyncratic grasp of the relationship between mind and world. A mate for the eye piece was a smaller steel-and-canvas, basketlike form called Falling On Deaf Ears No. 2, 1984–85, which lay on the carpet like a pet. Once again, obvious formal analogies exist between this work and its anatomic equivalent. Deacon’s fragments represent the organs that house and determine our response to art, among other things; magnified to a larger scale, they become odd presences resting in our space. They are less like Claes Oldenberg’s equations of body parts with monuments than like the wreckage of a mechanical Robinson Crusoe.

Deacon’s astute combinations of unorthodox textures encourage an empathic reaction. The skins of these pieces are also their structures: in Falling on Deaf Ears the green canvas pressed between steel channels is like a closed umbrella, partly slack but controlled by the armature. That the works themselves are precarious and hovering makes them additionally sympathetic. Finally, this exhibition included two small pieces from Deacon’s series “Art for Other People.” This perfect title provokes endless speculation, and is peculiarly appropriate to Deacon’s sometimes cryptic, even mute work. Does it mean that his art outside this series is just for him? Who are other people? What is art?

Judith Russi Kirshner