Deacon blue

Contemporary art - By the crashing waves of Porthmeor Beach, Richard Deacon's work is ever more surp

No gallery, anywhere in the world, commands a view more seductive than the panorama of Porthmeor Beach. Seen from the great curved window of Tate St Ives, its beguiling expanses of soft pale sand and prime surfers' waves have the power to transfix. They can easily make us ignore the exhibits inside, and provide daunting competition for artists who want to hold our attention with the work they display there.

Richard Deacon, however, has no difficulty in rising to this formidable Cornish challenge. Most of his new sculpture is concentrated in the vast semi-circular space looking out over Porthmeor Beach, yet his art proves compelling, whether contained within the glass-fronted screen or dramatically occupying the floor below, where visitors often feel most tempted to gaze out at the epic immensity of sea and sky.

How does he achieve such a feat? Partly by surprising us, and exploring the possibilities inherent in materials that many sculptors would never dream of deploying. When Deacon first convinced me that he was an outstanding talent, in the early 1980s, he made eloquent use of laminated wood strips bound together with adhesive. He is still involved with wood today, yet Deacon has never made the mistake of repeating himself with safe, bland formulae. Always on the move, he has experimented with leather, metals, carpet, linoleum and much else besides.

In recent years he has turned his attention to clay. Usually the preserve of craft-based practitioners obsessed by vessels, ceramic has enabled Deacon to open himself up to the delights of colour and a more sensual approach. The eight pieces in a series called Gap, all ranged behind the wide glass screen at Tate St Ives, declare a fascination with glazed textures. Their freely handled surfaces have more in common with painting than sculpture. And the forms wriggle in front of us, suggesting an impish playfulness quite different from the works in other materials shown nearby.

Seen from above, all the Gap ceramics revel in the white lines undulating around their tops. In this respect, they are like drawings. After a while, however, I began to see the series as sequences of cliffs splashed, weathered and eroded by sea and wind. The broken handling of their surfaces encourages this response, and so does their resemblance to mysterious, interlinked caves.

But maybe the context of Tate St Ives encouraged me to give these ceramics maritime meanings. His big pieces made of steamed ash and stainless steel have an exclamatory impact on the gallery's lower level. Seen from above, the largest looks at first like the outcome of a catastrophic explosion. It twists across the dark floor like abandoned wreckage. But then, as you walk down towards the sculpture, these insistent rhythms become more buoyant and unfurling. Some parts still seem crushed yet, in the main, they all seem evocative of waves, rather than a convulsive attack or accident. Deacon clearly does not want to stifle the potential of interpretations. He calls the work Rest-less, and leaves the onlooker to speculate about its likely origins. Walking round this prodigious and inexhaustible sculpture, we become aware of the continuous flow. It now looks like a single piece rather than a tangle of splintered shards. Deacon makes no attempt to disguise how it was put together. Each strip of ash is exposed to view, and so are the steel bars running across the wood. They stiffen the sculpture, giving it a stern rigour. But they do not interfere with its curving rhythms, which give it the air of a natural phenomenon rather than an act of violence.

A second large wood sculpture is less evocative of a marine theme. Individual consists of three rolling pieces attached to a central, far paler, spine, which prevented me from thinking about waves. Instead, I remembered Deacon's interest in Poussin's tragic late landscape in the National Gallery, where figures react with terror to the discovery of a young man killed by a snake. The lethal serpent is still coiled around his body, and this gruesome ritual seems about to be re-enacted here.

A silent, sober black-and-white film, projected in a nearby room, shows how technically demanding the ash pieces really are. Stewart Wilson and Paul Hookham take us into the studio, where Matthew Perry bends the steamed wood around metal forms and attaches an impressive number of clamps. Heavy manual labour is called for, along with a great deal of painstaking concentration.

Sometimes the process erupts with spectacular force, especially when sparks fly off an electric saw. But, on the whole, patient care and effort are called for when a work as complex as Restless is assembled, piece by demanding piece.

Right at the top of Tate St Ives, another room is inhabited by three pieces, each startlingly different from its neighbour. Masters of the Universe 1 is made from stainless steel. It asserts a gleaming, tubular identity, advancing in the direction of a piece called Flower 2. And the heavy, lumbering certitude of the steel sculpture has nothing in common with this astonishing ceramic. Flower 2 is the outcome of sustained assault. The clay was hammered with a metal ring and, as part of the same aggressive process, cut open. So rather than growing and blossoming, it looks splattered, subjected to incessant, merciless attack.

The third piece, Another Kind of Blue, fills the allotted space with assurance and could easily occupy the entire gallery on its own. It lies like a great beached whale. And its overall blueness intensifies the notion of a marooned sea-creature. Melancholy, ruminative and enigmatic, Another Kind of Blue retains its secrets intact.

The whole room is a defiant proclamation of catholicity, showing just how various and unclassifiable Deacon's work is. Now in his mid-fifties, this self-styled "fabricator" is bent on self-renewal, and every instinct tells me that he will ambush us with equally unpredictable surprises in the years ahead.

"Richard Deacon" is showing at Tate St Ives (01736 796 226) until 25 September