Contours for touching

HERE is a sculpture at first sight without connotations. It is primarily itself, a large, un-weighty-looking object constructed of strips of laminated wood that are made to travel with undulating fluency across the floor - a compelling directional movement, this - but that curve back and up and over, returning on themselves like endless loops: It is simultaneously progressive and self-contained, open and closed. Such articulation through space has strong affinities, in sculptural terms, with the freedoms of linear drawing on paper. The small child in the Kr"oller-M"uller Museum in the Netherlands (which owns this work by Welsh-born sculptor Richard Deacon) intuitively does with his hand what adult observers are more likely to do with their eyes: He follows the curves as they leap forward, tracing their somehow inevitable progress of lift and fall.

Immediately what seemed to be singularly an ``abstract'' sculpture suggests analogies. If the child had a toy car, he would doubtless run it, rather than his hand, along the roads of the work. In feeling rather than just looking at these up-hills and down-dales, he makes his own unwitting comment on the title Deacon gave the piece, ``Blind, Deaf and Dumb (A)'': that here is something accessible, above all, to touch.

And yet this title remains open to conjecture. Does it mean the piece itself is insensate? Does it mean it is an abstract object, without perceivable subject? Or is the title an ironic comment on those who look at this sculpture?

Deacon's titles often suggest his interest in the capacities - or incapacities - of the senses vis-`a-vis sculpture. Other works have been given such tags as ``For Those Who Have Ears, No. 2,'' ``Falling on Deaf Ears, No. 1,'' ``Turning a Blind Eye.'' The use of such common phrases suggests his belief in their significance is only a tentative one. They scarcely offer penetrating interpretations of the sculptures' meaning.

On the other hand it is clear, from things he has said in interviews and in his own writing, that he has moved firmly away from the notion that titles are irrelevant. The label ``Untitled'' (itself by now a clich'e, surely) does not make a sufficient acknowledgment of the fact that however autonomous a sculpture may be, its form is still likely to be referential. Deacon's choice of phrases with double meanings reinforces this idea. They suggest the sculptures have, for all their self-sufficiency as objects, potential secondary readings - that their forms may well be metaphors alluding to other things or forms.

But it is as if he is reluctant to admit the possibility today of subject matter in sculpture, while also being reluctant to settle for total abstraction. Nor is he content simply to make objects. Another dimension than objecthood seems called for, though to perceive this dimension it is necessary for the viewer to have ``eyes that see.''

He seems to imply that ``eyes'' and ``ears'' are - like the sculpture - not just objects, but metaphors for perception. He said in an interview (May 1985): ``I feel slightly uncomfortable about calling things [i.e., in his sculptures] by ... specific names, because if you say, `That's a boat' - it's not a boat, or, `That's an eye' - they're not eyes. Those happen to be the names - the shorthand - for some of the qualities that the work has.''

By this token, when he talks about ``For Those Who Have Ears'' as ``utilizing ear shapes'' (as he did in the same interview), he is hardly thinking of them as contours describing ears anatomically. Nevertheless he accepts that a connection with ``ears,'' hinted by the shapes and corroborated in the title, should not be ignored - should not ``fall on deaf ears.''

What he questions is the inanimateness of sculpture as thing. Sculptural objects may be ``blind, deaf, and dumb'' but the projection of perception, awareness, words, and listening onto sculpture endows it with a kind of interac-tive life between it and the artist, or between it and the viewer. By extension this can mean communication between artist and viewer.

Much has been written and said about Deacon's encounter in the late 1970s with the poet Rilke's ``Sonnets to Orpheus.'' Orpheus represents the power of sound - of listening - over the insensible or inanimate. Deacon made drawings connected with Rilke's series of poems (Rilke was himself moved by sculpture and sculptors) and these drawings are unquestionably at the back of such three-dimensional sculptures as ``For Those Who Have Ears'' and ``Blind, Deaf and Dumb (A).''

Both drawings and sculptures are skeletal contours whose empty centers can only be read as implied form rather than seen or felt so. This invisibility can be taken as an analogy for sound, resonant in hollow space - an interpretation encouraged, but not insisted upon, by Deacon's thought-stimulating titles.

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