The Warren Report

Are you thinking of being a sculptor? Then check out the Rebecca Warren survey at the Serpentine Gallery in London. It borders on the sublime but keeps a foot firmly planted in an interior building site. Many parts are stretched across five rooms but we see no whole. Poise, balance and delicateness and electricity enliven relative material poverty and culminate, sometimes, in a triumphant neon halo. But we aren’t in Paradise even though there is a power to be in awe of here. Who’s in charge the artist or the material?

"Husband 9" on wall, "We Are The Dead" in the foreground.
“Husband 9″ on wall, foreground:”We Are The Dead”. M.D. on wheels.

Warren is a London based Turner Prize nominated woman sculptor whose aesthetics are grounded in the tools and off-cuts of the building trade. She works with these materials like a builder who has had an epiphany and now directs his energy and material to making art. Or is it Warren who had the epiphany? After all how could sculptors not be affected by all of the building going on around them in London these last 15 years?

New building on the way.
New building on the way.

This latest building frenzy has left our relationship with the physical world in disarray. We expect too much of the immaterial from the material. Mass must not slow us down. Warren’s work reflects this urgency. Her cubes and blobs on trolleys remind us of the modern obsession with speed and motion. A small clay sculpture that seems to be recreating a sexual pastoral moment  spins on its pedestal. Together they announce that there are no limits to the amounts and shapes of mass that we can move and that movement won’t necessarily affect the shape of things. We live in Pharaonic times.

They'll get bigger. The sculpture on the left spins.
They’ll get bigger. The sculpture on the left spins. photo Serpentine Gallery.

Elsewhere a gang of conical mounds of plaster hovering close to their neon brained leader bears witness to lazy poking, licking and haphazard wrangling with clay. An angular chunk of compressed material astral-like material called “Head” bears meandering patterns of plaid across its surfaces. The obtuseness of these pieces confounds me but their weight pleases me. I believe that Warren is acknowledging density and, perhaps, of the electrical properties of atoms. In any case her treatment of the surface of things forces us to think of what is within them.

It's hefty. Feel it?
It’s hefty. Feel it?

Here and there we find angular steel plate pieces that offer a counterpoint to the over-all globular feel to the show. A reminder of the steel armatures necessary to every plaster sculpture they are adorned with fuzz balls that confounds their virility. Is this a pom -pom feminization of the male material world or is it a fungus?

Armature levitating. Where did that puff ball go?
Armature levitating. Where did that puff ball go?

Warren’s forte are her broken display cases that line the walls.

"Man In The Dark"
“Man In The Dark”

Behind the glass fronts all askew are what I call built debris consisting of Styrofoam, spores, mangled clay and, MDF and twig assemblies. Here the man-made and the natural sing each other’s praises while basking in the artificial intelligence of neon light.

detail from “I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass”

Elsewhere she dials into cute monster motifs. Her signature puffballs abound and are rascally.

Lick me!

They remind us of Horton Hears A Who a story in which an elephant must save the life of a civilization contained inside the equivalent of a dandelion. What’s in those puffballs? The Serpentine has become a Horton that protects the most fragile of contemporary art. Good luck because this stuff is on the move. It’s already outside and on top of the cases.

New forms of payments.
New forms of payments.

It is clear that Warren is at her best when assembling found materials. She has an understanding with them right down to the perfectly positioned bent nails and the lone, partially unscrewed, screws. Indeed her greatest moment is when she shows us what material will do to itself by crowning a small Styrofoam pedestal with a tangle of cellophane tape wrestling with itself.

What material will do to itself.

But she is defeated when she has to create objects to speak with. She wants the plaster to speak for itself. Meanwhile she will veer between orgiastic abstract expressionism and honed surfaces of cartoon inspired/copied forms until the plaster takes over.

The female form as framework . Is this an ice cream wedding cake?

Curiously she exposes her built debris to the world outside of the display cases but completely encloses one of her smooth skinned plaster sculptures in Plexiglas. Is it a diving bell?

Hello Vivienne (Westwood)

I wonder because Warren is forcing us onto a primordial ocean. The idea of a singular work, or a chef d’ouevre, has been dispensed with here. Instead the artist’s materials are staking a claim and will self determine from here. They may appear dumb in Warren’s hands at times but they understand themselves and it is to Warren’s credit that she lets us see that. After all, to be sculpted is only a moment in time for any given material. Warren grabs what she can and does what she can before the materials escape her. The question is: will she be able to continue to accept her place in this relationship?