Berlin

Rebecca Warren

Galerie Max Hetzler | Oudenarder Strasse

Rebecca Warren’s presentation at last year’s exhibition at Tate Britain of the artists shortlisted for the 2006 Turner Prize consisted of two distinct types of sculpture, and the same was true of “Come Helga, This Is No Place for Us,” her first solo show in Berlin. On the one hand, there were three floor-based works consisting of roughly modeled, vaguely biomorphic, but ultimately amorphous sculptures of unfired clay set atop white pedestals. Vigorously worked, they are marked by traces of pale color that add warmth and atmosphere. Considerably more abstract than much of Warren’s previous work in this medium—though perhaps even more overtly sensual—they recall a whole tradition of manually expressive sculpture, from the early ceramics of Lucio Fontana through Willem de Kooning’s bronzes and those of William Tucker to Franz West’s plaster “Paßstücke.” On the other hand, there were four vitrines containing (but also supporting) various elements, including, in each case, a bent neon tube. Two of the vitrines were wall-mounted, two were freestanding—but both of the floor pieces included a very pale rose–colored pedestal among their contained elements. In addition to these recent works—all from this year—a painted bronze Head, 2001, rested on the floor.

Marcel Duchamp once referred to titles as “invisible colors” added to a work; likewise a list of materials can be something like an intangible form within it. Gilbertine, Olga, and Yes, Olga are described as consisting of “painted re-inforced clay” and “painted MDF plinth,” suggesting that their straightforward, rectangular white bases are elements in the work rather than provisional presentational devices. Of course, Brancusi (and other sculptors since) dealt with the base as a sculptural element but usually subjected it to sculptural labor equivalent to that expended on the supported object. By incorporating the base in the form of a readymade, Warren makes an issue of it precisely by allowing it to remain almost unnoticed. Enclosing the base as an object of display within a Plexiglas case, as Warren does in MS 1 and MS 2, points more clearly to its ambiguous status without resolving it.

The combination of the blatantly corporeal and the quizzically elusive is probably Warren’s true stylistic signature. Maybe that’s why the vitrines, where these qualities find more of a balance, have a stronger fascination than the clay sculptures, on the whole. Closer to the poetic whimsy of Joseph Cornell’s boxes than to the didactic museology embodied by the vitrines of Joseph Beuys (the originator of this sculptural type), these constructions are airy and delicate, the contained elements of wood, cotton, and metal being dispersed so as to emphasize the space between them. Just as the container itself becomes an active element by supporting as well as enclosing, the wires that power the neon elements are made formally dynamic by being looped inside and outside the box. Here, everything seems permeable. Whereas the clay and bronze sculptures, ponderous and sometimes comical, are always flirting with the monstrous or the grotesque, these elegant and witty assemblages possess a Delphic inscrutability: The items in them flirt mostly with each other, never quite making contact but generating a charged mutual attraction. In the bright light of the gallery, even the glow of the little neon shapes seems nearly self-contained, just barely grazing the neighboring objects. Warren’s strength as an artist is undoubtedly witnessed by the range covered by these two bodies of work—from the full to the sparse, from the almost too much to the nearly not there.

Barry Schwabsky