In this edition I write briefly on the works of Richard Deacon, not about an opening, but almost as a finissage1 to his current show Deep State in London.
From the time of his very early success at Riverside Studios in London, Deacon has carved, or more accurately, constructed, a career of considerable longevity comprised of works of huge variation, and below I will attempt to unpick why exactly this is of itself a more major accomplishment than one might think.
My perception, rightly or wrongly, is that Deacon has always been appropriately sceptical of the trappings of that success, but I would ask that you don’t take this comment at face value. Many years ago when I was a student of his at Chelsea School of Art, after much effort, I managed to engage the man in a conversation of sorts. What struck me as I first listened and later witnessed his transition from art school tutor to feted artist, was his resistance to vanity, and an acute perception that museums, galleries and curators were, on the whole, a fickle lot.
To put this into perspective, Deacon really made a profound impact in the early ‘80’s with striking metaphorical works such as If the Shoe Fits (1981) and This, That and the Other (1985), colliding evidence of the hand made with industrial processes and poetic insinuation; if you think the word insinuation odd, please forgive me, it’s just that there is a certain fittingness about how Deacon’s works often insinuate intimacy whilst concurrently being sinuous and insinuating themselves into the subconscious.
The odd and compelling contradiction of Deacon’s work is the painstaking sense of visible process and how he reconciles this laboriousness with a notion of unbridled poetry or material liberation. So to get back to my initial point, what has this got to do with the artist’s innate suspicion?
So back in the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and noughties, I sensed, following from a distance, that Deacon was stubbornly resistant to the voracious market demand for his works, this in terms of both quantity, but more particularly stylistically. Deacon mentioned to me once that one of the literal ‘trappings’ of being a successful artist in that period was the challenge of fending-off the acquisitive tendencies of museum collections, and their propensity to vie to own the most recognisable or quintessential example of an artist’s work. At the time, I didn’t realise the ruthlessness or pitfalls of such acquisitions policies, but years later I think to I came to understand what Deacon meant; certainly as much as any major museum wants to boast a major or minor Rothko in its collection, these are a relatively finite and fixed commodity (with the exception of unattributable or unverifiable works); i.e. we know that no more Rothko’s are likely to emerge from the studio. But in the case of living artists it is often difficult to ignore the demands made by collections to create something that isn’t just any old Deacon, Whiteread, Cragg, Wilding etc. From a collections perspective, there is a corporate/cultural need for the work to actually be recogniseable as if an emblem or motif that stands for the artist’s visible inclusion. This ‘inclusion’ of course is part of the obsession of the collector, but the impacts of seeking out items not only to complete a ‘set’, but of policies that ask artists to be mindful of other sets in other collections, and produce accordingly, can have the entirely unintended consequence of dictating public taste.
Forgive me, dear reader, if you think this a long-winded build-up to an absurdly brief punch line, but what I hope I am conveyong is that; on the one hand we have the archetypal (deceased) international, inter-museum equivalent of the sweetened playground swap, whilst on the other, there is the practice of (effectively) commissioning successful creatives to create similar (pseudo bespoke outcomes). This continues to be a real art world pressure in my view, and one which, through the peaks and troughs of the capitalistic excesses and despondencies of the past 50 years, some have been able to resist.
What we witness in the remarkable show at Lisson, is the accomplished work of an artist of conscience and authenticity, who never capitulated, and whose creativity embraces cognition rather than succumbing to recognition.
As a sculptor, I have always wondered what exactly is depth? It is shifting and ineffable. Perhaps all I can know is surface, the rest a fiction, a deep state that slips away from view.
But Deacon’s work gives the lie to this - and makes for utterly essential viewing.
1 Richard Deacon, Deep State. Lisson Gallery, London, until 29 February 2020.