Work that is constantly, irresolvably shifting
You’ll find the entrance to the main gallery boarded up, with heavy locks and chains. But if you can get close up enough to the peep holes you’ll detect the movement of visitors – there is a way in, Sherlock – and you’ll partially glimpse fragments of work. Once inside you’ll be dazzled by the brightness of the gallery – the walls and ceiling are whiter than white, and the light fierce. And, woah, have the builders been in? Here are concrete casts, bendy pipes, sheets of painted corrugated iron, tubing, metal fencing. You’ll also find commercial stickers with a cryptic logo and a stop sign. They’re plastered everywhere. “No Shoring Shorey £SHO”, they warn. Right.
As well as making sculpture from building debris (you may infer the influence of Franz West here and there), Michael Dean prints books, thick volumes filled with pages of his own invented typographies. The books are wedged into his sculptures or discarded on the floor, their spines broken, their pages creased or ripped out. Instead of words you’ll find marijuana leaf patterns dancing across the page, like concrete poetry. When you’re high, you’re meant to see things clearly, man. Everything is illuminated. Know what I mean?
Dean is exercised by language, signs, meaning, the sheer slipperiness of visual information. Once you step inside, you’re never on steady ground. His sculptures slyly morph into human figures – sentinels with drilled peepholes for eyes stand to attention in a family group and looping, sloping stick figures suddenly turn into cursive letters. These are crazy, morphing sculptures laden with hidden clues, or so it seems as you indulge in intellectual detective work.
Concrete casts of body parts – fists, a giant troglodyte foot, a roughly hewn torso – appear out of nowhere, and once you see one body part you’ll find they’re suddenly lurking everywhere. Hunker down to get a better look. Peer close, and you may come across a disembodied, ‘mutilated’ hand on a triangular mound of earth overgrown with reeds. The proposition may be a murder scene. Or perhaps there’s something sexual going on: damp, soft soil yielding to the intimate caress of two probing fingers pushing against the undergrowth. Or indeed it’s simply alluding to fragmented memories and we shouldn’t get carried away. Here, after all, are simple allusions to family days out at the beach. No Shoring.
Loaded with meaning, layered with allusion, this is work that is constantly, irresolvably shifting. You could, quite happily, spend hours trying to decode it. I have a feeling that Dean will be one of the most exciting contemporary artists I’ll be lucky enough to see this year. Intensely clever, delightfully visual, he’s certainly the most exciting artist I’ve seen at the South London Gallery.