18 March – 22 May 2016, South London Gallery
Sic Glyphs, Michael Dean’s solo exhibition at South London Gallery, opens with a blockade. A trio of glyphs – sculptural characters evolved from his newest text – barricade the usual entrance to the gallery, making us walk around the building to enter from its garden access. These three human-size sentinels, a concrete slab, a wooden board and a corrugated shutter drilled with peepholes resembling eyes, are a sign of things to come. Inside the glaring white of the gallery, an entire alphabet of concrete barricades, lumpen steel beams, foam tubing and corrugated sheet-metal appear alongside clumps of earth, decaying weeds, casts of the artist and his sons’ own fingers and fists – pointing and contorting – and a patch of dried seaweed sprinkled with shingle.
Dean’s sculptures resemble mutated elements of a building site, a docklands, a wasteland. All have a shapeshifting quality, seemingly morphing between human figures or body parts, cursive typographies, cordons and barriers. Their physical ambiguity stems from the fact that, as with his previous exhibitions, Sic Glyphs is as rooted in Dean’s written work and the slippages of language as it is in the production of objects. The exhibition’s title signals this back-and-forth, using ‘sic’ – in its traditional sense as a Latin adverb standing for sic errat scriptum – to indicate that quoted matter has been transcribed exactly as found, but also – in the contemporary urban sense of the word – as a tongue-in-cheek description of his glyphs as ‘interesting, cool, awesome’. For Sic Glyphs, Dean has written a new text, produced as a book, which plays on the word ‘shore’. A concept he carries through to his sculpture’s very positioning – haphazardly scattered like debris washed ashore during a storm. Moreover, a ‘shore’ can also be a prop or beam that holds something up, or supports it. With this in mind, then, Dean’s sculptural alphabet seems to encourage – or support – language’s own elasticity, exaggerated here through its physical abstraction and placing.
In book form, ‘shore’ looks like it has been created with Microsoft Paint’s spraygun tool: clip-art symbols of cannabis leaves, machine guns, pennies, Bob Marley’s face, rainclouds and Playboy bunnies trace the imaginary loops and swirls of Dean’s text – dancing across the page with little regard for the margins or gutter. The book also makes minor appearances across the exhibition in various precarious circumstances. By the entrance, one page, stained blue and twisted, peeps from a lifted corner of the gallery’s linoleum floor like a giant rollie – there both to greet you and bid you a mischievous farewell. Elsewhere, a stack of books supports a concrete limb, and crumpled pages sit atop an industrial arm, protrude from cracks or litter the floor. It is as though the sculptures have literally shed the language that produced them.
Dean’s exhibition plays with the transmutation of language from the spoken word, to its graphical representation, to its physical, three-dimensional abstraction. In its conception, his distorted vocabulary is never without figurative promise, and as such he positions us – the viewer – as a protagonist in his act. Meaning is as slippery here as the interpretations we might choose to imagine, and it would be pointless to try and come away with a conclusion. The work not only resists such containment but, moreover, celebrates the enjoyment we may get from the dexterity of language – as well as from the pleasure found in this visceral and corporeal cast of sculptures.
This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of ArtReview.