Exhibitions: Bend me, shape me, glue me

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The Independent Culture
Richard Deacon:

New World Order

Tate Gallery, Liverpool

Young British artists seem to have a knack for shaking things up. The current crop of YBAs have been making noise for some 10 years now, sticking dead sharks in our faces and going on about their love lives. But just before them came a group who might have been called the YBSs, a generation of bad-boy sculptors who, in the early 1980s, swept aside the orthodoxies of minimalism and conceptualism. All those serious steel cubes and solemn blocks of wood were replaced by a torrent of cut-up washing machines and old plastic toys, in the process making the new British sculpture they came to represent a force to be reckoned with internationally.

Not so young any more, some of these YBSs are now household names: Antony Gormley, creator of the Angel of the North; Anish Kapoor (not one for cutting up washing machines himself but whose early, pigment-covered works dazzled with their intense, primary colours) who turned the Hayward Gallery into a maze of visual tricks which delighted a capacity crowd; Bill Woodrow, who scattered bronze books and baskets through the Duveen Galleries at the Tate and in the courtyard of the British Library.

But what happened to Richard Deacon? He was a key figure in the group, and won the Turner Prize in 1987, but there has been no significant show of his work in Britain since the one held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1988, although he has been much seen abroad. But now, the Tate Gallery in Liverpool has filled the gap with a show of the work he has produced over the last 10 years.

Deacon is certainly a good interior designer. The first things to be seen on entering the top-floor galleries are not sculptures as such, but screens. He has rearranged The Interior is always More Difficult (1991) just inside the gallery entrance. It was originally made as an installation of large drawings sealed within clear corrugated plastic sheets for the windows of the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld. Here, it makes a sort of semi- transparent hallway which welcomes visitors while also partly concealing the sculptures which lie beyond. Thus the viewer's first experience of the exhibition is not one of an array of things, but of an opening into a space - a clever point, cleverly made.

And then come the objects, arrayed modestly at first behind and on either side of the screens. And no matter how much the catalogue insists that Deacon's writing is an important element of his work (represented there rather frustratingly by only two short essays in a collection of short essays by other writers), it is the objects that he makes, ultimately, that must convince us. Grouped on one side of the screens are examples from Art for Other People, an ongoing series of smaller pieces started in 1982; on the other side are medium-sized individual works. Identified only by their number, the Art for Other People pieces are charming. Arranged casually on the floor, they are made from everyday sorts of things - brown paper, mesh fencing, woven plastic packaging - which have been squashed and stitched and cut and tucked into forms which are intriguing yet modest, engaging yet unassuming. The product of intense and intelligent observation and skilful restructuring, the Art for Other People objects are a delight.

On the other side of the screen are larger, more obviously "sculptural" pieces, abstract and elegant. One is called, self-deprecatingly, Almost Beautiful (1994), and it is in fact very beautiful indeed. An intriguing amalgamation of a shell-like form made from wooden slats glued together with resin and a flowing, foam-like protuberance of transparent welded polycarbonate, the delicate and evanescent back is like a cloud captured from the sky and pinned to a wooden support. Nothing is forbidden (1994), continues the shell-like theme, leaning against the wall as if discarded by a careless turtle which has wriggled free and disappeared from view. Second Skin (1994), a structure of heaped interlocking cardboard segments, seems to want to continue growing before our very eyes.

In the last room, overlooking the docks, the restraint and control so evident in the earlier works in the show are thrown away, as three huge works, Laocoon (1996), After (1998) and What Could Make Me Feel This Way (1993), each take up whole sections of the gallery, gobbling up space and writhing around as if only just contained by the white walls. Their scale suggests the monumental, but their method of construction - hundreds of narrow strips of steamed wood intricately bent and bolted into interlocking curves like giant woven baskets - seems instead to seek to avoid any issues of weight or mass, instead allowing them to be permeated with light and air. It is almost as if, in this age of irony, Deacon could not quite accept that he had made such huge, simple, attention- seeking things, so bursting with energy, so eager just to take up space, and has tried to undermine their massiveness by letting us literally see through them. This unease is also evident in the four curious collages - colour photographs of empty skies, each with a small drawing of a sculptural form stuck awkwardly in the centre - displayed on an adjacent wall, which seem somewhat awkwardly to try to suggest that, hey, this making sculpture stuff really is a bit of a joke ...

But it isn't, of course, and Deacon is best when he just gets on with it. In the gallery in which Laocoon rears up high enough almost to push through the skylight, a more modest object sits in the opposite corner. Made of spun aluminium, Blow (1999), is a simple, silvery, bulbous form, about three-foot high and somewhat like a hamburger bun in shape. This may not sound promising, but in its straightforwardness and self-confidence, Blow is one of the most successful pieces in the show. It was good to read in an interview with Tate Liverpool director Lewis Biggs that Deacon intends to work more on such medium-scale pieces. Tired of the large outdoor commissions that occupied him for a decade or so, he is turning back to the studio-made object, to the work he wants to make to satisfy his own requirements rather than fulfiling the requests of others.

This is a good sign. For Deacon has perhaps tended to deny the validity of exploring form for its own sake, straining to give his work a political charge, for example, titling the present show "New World Order", with its references to George Bush and the Gulf War, of which the work has no need. If this artifice is stripped away, Deacon is left to his rightful place as the one former YBS who, far from turning the tradition of British sculpture on its head, in fact follows closely in the formal footsteps of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, examples of whose work may be seen on the floor below. Having avoided the literalness of Woodrow and Gormley and the tricksiness of Kapoor, Deacon will hopefully continue to be a clever maker of serious, silent, significant things, and his work will be all the better for it.

`New World Order': Liverpool Tate Gallery (0151 709 3223), to 16 May.

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