‘He wants to put things together in a certain way, and I go away and make a vocabulary for him to work with’. Matthew Perry, long-term collaborator of British sculptor Richard Deacon, reveals the methods he’s devised over their thirty-year relationship to manipulate materials

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  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 5 2013

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    Richard Deacon’s ash and steel Slippery When Wet 2004 under construction

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 8 2013

    Construction of Richard Deacon’s Out of Order 2003, oak and stainless steel

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 1 2013

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 9 2013

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 2 2013

    Works under construction inside Matthew Perry’s studio

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 5 2013

    Shaping wood encased in metal in Matthew Perry’s studio

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 4 2013

    Deacon’s large-scale wooden sculpture Upper Strut 2011 under construction

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 3 2013

    A metal maquette for Richard Deacon’s Restless 2005

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

  • Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 7 2013

    Wood encased in metal being shaped

    Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

I go down to a place in the country for the wood, and a log is already cut several months before into rough dimensions that I want. I tend to select the pieces outside the studio and I look at them bit by bit for straight grain. At the studio I chop and mill it down. In the case of making twists, which are the heart of the works I Remember, and Strut, after I’ve selected them I bundle them together in groups with gaffer tape and shove them into the steamer. It’s in the steamer for no less than three hours and when it comes out I have five minutes to actually twist it. I can’t do more than four per day because they require at least two hours to dry to the point at which I can take them out of the steamer. 

Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 10 2013

Wood being shaped following steaming in Matthew Perry’s studio

Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

I use a twisting donkey which can take various heads. The maximum I can get is something like a 435° twist on any object; and that is the point to which everything starts breaking, including the machine. Wood tends to fracture when it’s allowed to expand, so the whole principle of steaming is that you compress - it’s very easy for a piece of wood to be compressed, especially once it’s steamed, but if you allow it to stretch, then it will just crack. 

Matthew Perry Richard Deacon studio 11 2013

Wood being twisted as part of the construction of Slippery When Wet 2004

Photo: Martin Sherman and Christopher Perry

The reality of this work is that it’s always eccentric and it’s very hand-made, it’s not a process of mass production. Necessity is always what rules everything. You have very complex shapes that have to be joined, and they are routed together so that they are both strong, but elegant, rather than there being a kind of obtuseness about it. I don’t use computers to calculate things, I tend to just use my capacity to visualise things, and I still work like that. Every piece that I make, I try and leave something that’s lost, or is answered by the form or the structure, and that works for both me and Richard.

Authorship is difficult. But in a way, my life is about the practice rather than the processes. Richard has an idea; he wants to put things together in a certain way, and I go away and make a vocabulary for him to work with. That’s always how it’s always been.