The gallery at Roche Court – a small glass box looking out onto an expansive sculpture park in the Wiltshire countryside – must be an inspiring and intimidating place to exhibit. How do you compete with the Michael Craig-Martins doodling colourfully on the lawn outside; the cartwheeling Flanagan hares; the Gormley weathering solitary in the woods? The New Art Centre, which was set up by Madeleine Bessborough in London in 1958 before moving to rural Salisbury, represents (among others) the estates of Barbara Hepworth and Kenneth Armitage: they do a good line in large sculptures built to last.
Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon are no strangers to such work. As recent solo exhibitions at the Royal Academy and Tate, respectively, have proven, they can turn out successful sculptures of their own on a scale to match. In fact, there’s a Woodrow right outside. But the collaborative pieces of glassware that make up ‘On the Rocks. Again’, are improbable exercises in small, breakable baroque – they revel in their fragility.
Woodrow and Deacon have been making shared sculptures since 1999. They created most of these ones in 2007, and exhibited them the following year in the shiny corporate halls of London’s Bloomberg Space at the height of the financial crisis. How well they must have played to that context. The original show featured seven tabletop sculptures, one for each day of the week – bizarre, hovering tableaus in which green glass mammoths march over barren obsidian-black plateaus. They resemble chess sets or military models, power games balanced on glass bubbles, ready to crack. A set of ‘Sorcerer’s Bottles’ accompanied them; knotted, snakey, stoppered vessels for some elixir or other (served straight up, or on the rocks, to fuel the fun?)
The current display isn’t a full reunion: Thursday, Friday and Sunday are not on display, leaving you guessing at a story (if there is one), and the artists have created a new work, Something for the Weekend, a transparent test tube of joined-up glass bowls, balanced on champagne flutes, weird and wobbly looking. The works hover behind the glass wall of the gallery as guests hover outside or slip in through the narrow entrances, tiptoeing around the precarious low tables on the floor.
I’m not sure these works are quite at home here: the space is too narrow, and the concrete walls and the lawn outside literally can’t reflect the sculptures’ futuristic shapes in quite the way Bloomberg’s polished surroundings could. But there’s something very interesting in the tension between the real rocks and soil outside and these glass sculptures, refined and reformed into fanciful conglomerations, surprisingly diverse in their colours, textures and shapes, and perfectly happy to be glass behind glass. Only the mammoths, solid and less shiny, look ready to step out, stomping over the fields to join Flanagan’s acrobats by the ha-ha for some outdoor fun.
‘Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow: On the Rocks. Again’ is at the New Art Centre, Wiltshire, until 6 July.
Richard Deacon interviewed for the February Apollo (Zoe Pilger)
Only Connect: Bill Woodrow at the Royal Academy (Matilda Bathurst)