San Diego

Richard Deacon, Distance No Object, 1988, painted steel, copper, 8' 7“ × 12' 3” × 20'.

Richard Deacon, Distance No Object, 1988, painted steel, copper, 8' 7“ × 12' 3” × 20'.

Richard Deacon

Richard Deacon, Distance No Object, 1988, painted steel, copper, 8' 7“ × 12' 3” × 20'.

At long last, a retrospective of the British artist Richard Deacon’s inventively shaped, often buoyant sculptures and geometrically themed works on paper has been mounted by an American museum. At sixty-seven, Deacon, a 1987 Turner Prize recipient, has an extensive exhibition history—commencing in London during the mid-1970s and including, a decade later, his solo debut in the United States in 1985. This engrossing look at his career was certainly overdue.

Presenting more than forty works spanning five decades, “What You See Is What You Get,” as this exhibition is called, impresses with its breadth and depth. Deacon works with a range of materials: wood, ceramics, handmade paper, and all sorts of metals. He then transforms these with a variety of techniques, both novel and traditional, to dazzling effect. He’s created, for example, a corpus of enchanting pieces by steaming and twisting wood. Because his ceramics are monumentally scaled as well as weatherproof, they can stay outdoors. Lately he’s turned large sheets of handmade paper into refreshing freestanding pieces. While many of his sculptures occupy considerable floor space, they never seem bulky, because he opens up his interiors, either framing them with linear wood networks or, if the pieces are metal, introducing immense hollow cores that you look through. His abstract wall works similarly defy expectations, tending to undo our perceptions as to what constitutes a relief.

Just take a look at Infinity #24, 2004. It has a metal surface that calls to mind bubble wrap, and it is punctured by round holes. The differently shaped parts fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The overall circumference is oddly shaped, too. Light bounces off the stainless steel while the openings are literally black holes. Sometimes Infinity #24 is installed so that its bottom edges touch the floor, but it also can be hung on a wall, as it is here.

When visiting Deacon’s solo shows, I’ve come, like others, to expect the unexpected. The nonrepresentational accretions that characterize so many of his constructions—whether they hover just above the floor or weave back and forth like miniature roller coasters or seem about to lift off like hot-air balloons—make you forget that for centuries statue and sculpture were interchangeable nouns. Deacon’s works can feel restless, seemingly still only for the moment in which you are standing in front of them. As he builds—or, to use a word the artist prefers, fabricates—large shapes by assembling smaller units, he attaches parts to one another via scores of the kind of fasteners found in a hardware store: rivets, screws, bolts, and flanges. He also uses various adhesives, which, when dry, resemble clumps of paint. These all add visual interest as well as a rhythmic quality to the finished works.

Due to the variety of materials he employs, Deacon’s exhibitions, including this one, are often quite colorful without his needing to paint or add patinas to his sculptures. When brought together, the inherent properties of the disparate materials radiate a built-in tonal diversity. Shadows, too, abound throughout this show, adding drama and intrigue as dark patterns are projected onto the gallery floor. Dancing in Front of My Eyes, 2006, calls to mind the image of a tumbleweed rolling along a windswept, arid landscape. Lit from above, its loop-de-loop wood elements create a phantomlike and flattened counterpoint design that surrounds the upright circular sculpture.

Distance No Object, 1988, a massive eight-and-a-half-by-twelve-by-twenty-foot painted-steel sculpture with copper rimming one of its circular ends, is a standout of this retrospective. A cross between a gigantic drainpipe and a Surrealist monster, the work has an intriguing history. Commissioned in 1988 as a site-specific work for the street-facing plaza of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Distance No Object was purchased by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1989, where it quickly became a fixture in one of the institution’s interior galleries. Even divorced from its intended setting, the work retains its ability to transfix viewers.

Deacon creates singular sculptures. His technical virtuosity allows him to wrest from wood, metal, ceramic, and paper all kinds of formal nuances as he carefully calibrates spatial intervals, paying attention to light and shadow as well as to the play between materials. Above all, his work expresses a jubilant spirit.

Phyllis Tuchman