Richard Deacon at PAM

Internationally lauded sculptor Richard Deacon spoke at the Portland Art Museum last night and watching the admittedly brilliant artist struggle through his lecture (given at the behest of the museum, who just purchased a major work by Deacon) seemed to pain all but the overly-perfumed elderly art patrons who sat behind me and gasped at the genius of every image to appear on the screen.

Deacon was clearly an uncomfortable speaker; primarily reserving his eye contact and explanatory gestures for the laptop before him rather than his audience. Evidence of his thought process was primarily gleaned from the chronological narrative that slowly played out on screen.

His formative years (early 1980’s) were given a considerable amount of time as he attempted to express how simple construction materials like galvanized steel, linoleum, and wood eventually were brought together in an open exploration process that resulted in a sculptural architecture of constructive technique. The resulting pieces were both inviting and exclusionary depending on the viewer’s vantage point. At one point Deacon also tried to express how the exposed hardware and joinery created “a sort of anxiety” among the viewer who were being made privy to the structural underpinnings of the artistic work. This is still a common theme among artists of many disciplines as they continue to react to the public perception that artists are material alchemists; capable of skills that the viewer will never understand or possess.

These early years, where much of Deacon’s artistic thinking was freshest if not always aesthetically appealing (forays into flimsy narrative yielded pieces such as If the Shoe Fits which lack all the refined grace that his process-oriented works demonstrate) slowly gave way to a mixed bag of large scale exhibitions which seemed more about meeting the demands of a rising market for work than refining thematic ideas planted at the outset of his career.

Nevertheless, a topological exploration of form took root in the 90’s as Deacon grew fatigued with rectilinear construction. As the geometry of his sculptures began to embrace complex curves and three dimensional twists of materials like wood and plastic an awe inspiring aesthetic of contorted form took hold. What Could Make Me Feel This Way seems to slip and wrap around itself: from one angle seeming almost intestinal despite being fabricated almost entirely out of bent wood slats. In this case the narrative is more open-ended, and thereby more successful— the title following the form rather than vice versa.

Throughout Deacon’s presentation I found myself alternately awed and dismayed at works he chose to display. His decisions for the Venice Biennale in 2007 seemed remarkably incisive, while gallery works of monolithic monochrome ceramic work seemed a bungled reaction to visual memes in globalized consumer culture. As an artist I am somewhat aware that I may not be able to differentiate which of my works are more successful, but I also grant that the failures help inform and spur on the greater successes. Such is obviously the case with Deacon, and perhaps my surprise was that I couldn’t be certain if he actually viewed the weaker work as successful or just maquettes for the breakthroughs that have earned him his standing in the art world.

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