View of “Rebecca Warren,” 2011.

View of “Rebecca Warren,” 2011.

Rebecca Warren

View of “Rebecca Warren,” 2011.

Over the past ten years or so, most accounts of Rebecca Warren’s work have included the same familiar list of names, conjured more or less explicitly by her sculptural forms and techniques. Degas, de Kooning, Helmut Newton, R. Crumb—this dubious patrilineage can be traced across decades and media, sustained by a tireless fascination with the female body. With virtuosity, Warren has mimicked and lampooned them all. But discussion of her work has often halted with the identification of these references, reducing her complex engagement with the politics of sculpture to a witty and pointed one-liner. By now, however, Warren has developed a distinctive sculptural vocabulary generative of its own productive correspondences and tensions. The title of her recent show at Maureen Paley, “Come Helga, This Is No Place for Us II,” framed it as a follow-up to her exhibition at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin four years ago. And themes of coupling, pairing, doubling, and splitting characterized the six sculptures on display, strategically juxtaposed like the charged detritus in the vitrines Warren included in the earlier show.

Central to the exhibition were two monumental bronzes, The Dane and There Is Another Way, both 2011. In recent years, Warren has moved from her well-known sculptures in unfired clay, to the vast clay models cast in bronze for the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010, to these new bronzes smothered in paint, which resemble nothing so much as overblown plaster maquettes. Laden with possibility and redundancy in equal measure, the maquette is a kind of sculptural prototype, doomed to supersession by the finished work. By casting these tentative, unrefined gestures in bronze, Warren renders them massive, public, and permanent; yet by painting them to look like poorly glazed ceramics, she reinvests them with the provisionality and fragility of the clay originals.

The air of the studio also hung thick around The Potter, 2010, which resembled a gargantuan pair of clay buttocks gratuitously spilling over a wooden workboard. Warren once joked that she wanted to make sculptures that looked like the work of a “pervy middle-aged provincial art teacher,” and this piece exudes just that hint of onanistic amateurism, as if made purely for pleasure, never to be shown. Yet across the room at Paley stood The Potter’s not-too-distant cousin, a sphere meaningfully slashed à la Lucio Fontana and titled National Geographic, 2011. Amusing alone, when viewed together these works troubled the distinction between amateurism and professionalism, figuration and abstraction, Fontana’s primeval slash and a far baser conception of the “origin of the world.”

These squeezed, stroked, and slavered-over surfaces were abruptly countered by the last two works in the show. Fabricated in steel with no trace of the hand, they were less concerned with the erotics of making than with the phenomenology of viewing. The Irregulars, 2011, is two ostensibly identical steel bars propped against a wall, whose dissimilarity unfolds with the viewer’s perambulations. Warren’s steel objects are most compelling when viewed in conjunction with her works in clay, with each sculptural mode serving to accentuate and berate the other. Nevertheless, they continue to pack a satirical punch. In Mélancholie, 2011, a slab of steel atop a steel box is itself topped by an incongruous ball of brown fluff that cheerily scuppers any nascent rhetoric of power. For all the bawdiness of Warren’s figures, nothing provokes hilarity quite like post-Minimalist pomposity punctured by a well-placed pom-pom.

Anna Lovatt