Richard Deacon

In spite of his wide exposure, both at home and abroad, this was the first major show of Richard Deacon’s work to be held in England. Seventeen pieces, from the intimate works in his “Art for Other People” series, 1982–88, to the huge Like a Snail (B), 1987, filled both floors of the gallery. The latter piece sat just inside the doors to the Whitechapel Art Gallery, its wide, open structure almost blocking one’s access to the space. Eleven laminated wooden ribs enclosing a roughly circular space ballooned up to the ceiling. They were kept in position only by being fastened to spacing rings at top and bottom. A smaller, more perfect O of compartmentalized aluminum ducting hung around one section of the top ring. A section of the bottom ring was absent, inviting the viewer to enter the work and experience its mushrooming form from within. In order to give more certainty to what would be, under any circumstances, an unstable form, a cable encircled the middle of the sculpture. The function of the cable is obvious, unapologetic, and it serves to emphasize a fact that is generally true of Deacon’s work: it looks the way it does because it has to.

The main challenge provided by Like a Snail (B) is that of an elusive figuration. To a certain degree, the piece often resembles something, and such similitude can be comforting. Yet to concentrate on a sculpture’s likeness to something else in the world would be at best only partially illuminating. It is perfectly possible, of course, to recognize a degree of reference to things, particularly to the human body and its organs, in Deacon’s sculpture, but beyond that, the work possesses an implacable abstract physicality.

Two from the more recently started “Back of My Hand” series, 1987–88, were included here. This latter group are wall- mounted and deal in a very direct way with the question of reference. These flat objects are, in Deacon’s no-nonsense phrase, fabricated; they present decorative surfaces that may be taken as symbolic or in some other way connotative. Their indeterminacy deliberately conflicts with the security suggested by the immediacy of the title. The Back of My Hand and the blunt These Are the Facts, 1987–88, an equally uncompromising and frighteningly seductive work, are two of the few titles that actually work. They suggest an account of the meaning of a work, an account which, thankfully, the sculptures refuse to relinquish so easily.

Michael Archer