New York

Richard Deacon

There’s a kind of sculpture that makes some people feel like wusses—an art of resistant materials, mighty force, dangerous tools—but there’s always an audience for it, because it makes other people feel like titans. Of course that’s not the only reason; tough sculpture can have all sorts of formal appeal. But surely a part of its attraction is an excitement about, or an identification with, the brute ability to make such work. There are other kinds of sculpture, naturally, and the post-Minimalists in particular were serious about alternatives, for example in the tactile methods and images of Eva Hesse. Later artists like Robert Gober, too, put kinks in sculptural practice. And then there’s Richard Deacon.

Deacon works in a variety of materials—his recent show included dimpled, cumulus-shaped reliefs in stainless steel and a tabletop display of found objects—but he is best known for his use of the bentwood technique developed in the nineteenth century by the furniture designer Michael Thonet, in which timber is steamed to become fleetingly malleable. Deacon’s ’80s bentwood compositions were relatively static, but his work can by now be quite baroque. Where once the impression it gave was of materials softened in damp and heat, then pressed and glued together—the seams seemed almost to weep—the impact of Red Sea Crossing, 2003 (the knockout here), depends on caged-up energy. The bends in the oak planks and posts are sufficiently extravagant and complex that you’re sure they want to set themselves straight, and the steel plates bolted vigilantly to the wood’s joints suggest that they would if they could. If a Richard Serra intimidates by mass and weight, you wouldn’t want to be nearby when Deacon’s piece went “boing.”

Red Sea Crossing has two unequal parts, separate but set close. Neither has a solid core, but both have a core: Each is built around a long, rambling loop of bent oak posts. Where the loops bend in round-edged angles, the posts keep their square-cut profiles; contrarily, when they stretch in straight extensions, they twist like candy canes, or like the braided rods that brace a carousel’s wooden horses. Each loop is lifted off the ground by wide supports made of flat, plank-like oak, bent, curved, glued, and screwed side by side, their surfaces partly blackened. Perhaps the lavish curls and scrolls in these legs explain the title: They’re like the stormy waves in a ’30s Mickey Mouse cartoon. In that case, the empty spaces framed by the loops so precariously embedded in this wooden sea might metaphorically be the miraculous vacancies in the waters that allowed the Jews to flee Egypt.

“Precarious,” though, would be a strange word to use here, because although the straining angles, roller-coaster lines, and steel bonds in Red Sea Crossing suggest a form only barely preserved, is this perhaps an illusion? Is bent oak actually as stable as carved oak, or as welded metal? If you undid some of Deacon’s screws, would the piece really fly apart? We don’t know—and that’s part of the tension of walking around this object. It’s also how Deacon manages to summon the “heroic” tradition of resistant materials, mighty force, and dangerous tools while working in softness, damp, and heat.

David Frankel