Don't ask 'why', ask 'how'

Richard Deacon's sculptures elude identification - but is a return to mystery in modern art such a bad thing? By Tom Lubbock

I want you to imagine that I'm a Venusian. I've just got out of my rocket. I can speak English. And I'd like you to try to explain to me how to tie a shoelace. OK? You know the kind of game - one of those tests for I'm not sure what. We art critics are set them all the time. We're always finding ourselves having to describe things that are, for all practical purposes, indescribable. We have a go. But we know that if our words do manage to instil an accurate picture in a reader's mind's eye, it's the merest fluke.

Often this doesn't much matter. The reader can get by without a total visualisation of the object in question. A rough idea will do. What's needed is the sort of account that conveys effects, feelings, the experience, the notion, the sense. Points can be made effectively, even when the look of the thing itself remains quite vague.

But what if there isn't really a sense?

At the Liverpool Tate Gallery at the moment you can see sculptures by Richard Deacon. They come with the overall title New World Order, a form of words that seems too burdened with ironies - remember the last war but one? - to be useful. And I may as well admit at the outset that I feel pretty blank about these works; don't hate them by any means, wouldn't try to step in if I heard somebody praising them, am perfectly content to share a planet with them and with their fans; just don't get it. So I'm going to have to describe them. Damn.

Deacon is about 50. He was one of those sculptors who - as the phrase is - came to prominence in the Eighties, part of a movement that was known, engagingly, as the New British Sculpture. It included such others as Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow. It was New because, after a stretch of dominance by conceptual and performance work, it put the focus back on objects.

Deacon made his mark then chiefly with lumbering 3-D collages of industrial stuffs, and large, loopy bows of plywood. Wood, metal and textile were notable ingredients. There were hints of the figurative. The show in Liverpool is all from the Nineties. The artist is still operating as a - his word - "fabricator". The leading materials now are wood and plastic. The figurative has gone. I'm not doing very well, am I?

Some basic features. Deacon has never much used straight edges. His shapes are curvy or bobbly. The curvaceousness suggests, not living forms, more a Scalextrix track. The bobbliness is similar to that when something has been heated up and expanded irregularly. These objects emphasise their constructedness. They are the opposite of seamless. Their joins are visible. If they're glued together, too much glue is applied, and it seeps out. If there's a bolt connection, it's over-bolted.

But often they have to be described in negatives. You wouldn't exactly call them abstract. They're too bitty to become pure forms; the identity of their constituent materials is too obtrusive. But you wouldn't call them weird or jokey objects either. They don't have explicit enough real- world associations to arouse that sort of reaction.

Here, they come in three sizes. There are some large, monumental wooden constructions - tubes of open latticing, kind of lobster-pot oesophaguses, that writhe and wind in convoluted loops. There are smaller, standing- up, roughly person-sized pieces, made of bent wood, and moulded transparent plastic, and rubber, and cardboard; but as for their shapes, my descriptive powers fail. And then there are objects smaller still, sitting around on the floor, blobs and flats and tube-y and boxy things and - leave alone delineate - with a few of them I couldn't even guess what they were made of, or whether they would be solid or squashy or hollow to the touch. At any rate, I touched one, and it wasn't at all what I expected.

Now, there were definitely moments when I thought "This is all going to come alive". The first sight is very exciting, when you glimpse one of those gigantic wooden writhers through a doorway, and it seems to promise something of overwhelming size and complexity (though it turns out this promise was mainly a glimpse effect). And another loopy one called Laocoon is good to look at, because its convolutions seem to be at the very limit of what you can get your mind round - ie you can just about work out that it doesn't contain a knot (though I guess someone with high spatial skills might realise this at once).

And there are nice opportunities for the tactile imagination, especially some pieces of smooth, polished wood. There's one which is rather like the lid of an old loo seat that's been buffed and buffed to an almost fragile thinness, and lies on the floor as if it were a pool of spilt water.

But I think I liked that one just because it had a metaphorical charge. And probably what one should look for in Deacon's work is the precise opposite - the way it so cleverly eludes any kind of identification, the way it produces objects that don't quite chime and don't quite jar, that stand there as plausible but as yet unrecruited candidates for the world.

Which, as an idea, sounds fine, doesn't it? And I got that feeling off one piece at least, something called Float (quite simple, futile to try and evoke). But mostly the impression was more like this. Here's this guy in his enormous studio, filled with all kinds of collected stuff and with manufacturing facilities ready to hand. Sometimes he has a big idea. But mainly he's kind of pottering, putting a and b together, trying out process x on material y, thinking that's quite interesting, and then noticing some accidental by-product on the floor, and thinking that's quite interesting, too.

As an embodiment of the act of making and the spirit of invention, Deacon's work is exemplary - presumably inspiring, also. It would be the ideal show to take a school art class round. The objects are excellent drawing- models. They're excellent incitements to creativity. They would be just the thing for design students, as well. They're like exercises that ask to be developed, incorporated, taken up and on somewhere. Many of the little things are in a series called "Art for Other People", and I think that's what it means: for further use.

All the stress is on the how. Perhaps it's a generational thing to find that not enough. Certainly, this is work that makes you feel the passage of time and taste, and how different Eighties sculpture was from what's come to prominence in the Nineties. The creative agenda is quite changed. Now it's hot on whats and whys. It's all a matter of knowing exactly what you're up to, articulate meanings, explicit real-world references. You may get a bit of mystery, but that's an extra. And in those terms, Deacon's work looks rather beached. What's it about? Well, er, not quite the right question, not if you expect it to be answered anyway, rather than just savoured.

And no doubt with the British art of the Nineties, things have swung too far into articulacy. You get to a point where works hardly need to be seen or made at all, as a full description is both perfectly feasible and all you need; and where artists are positively encouraged to talk and think like drones from a cultural studies department. There's a strong case for not knowing too clearly what you're up to. I note that the Tate's accompanying Deacon literature is almost completely meaningless. I don't mean jargonised, I mean as artspeak used to be - without any literal sense whatever. At the present moment, that's quite an encouraging sign.

'Richard Deacon: New World Order', Tate Gallery, Albert Dock, Liverpool. Until 16 May. Closed Mon (0151-709 3223)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?