Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Rebecca Warren: Feelings at Matthew Marks Gallery

September 10 to October 24
522 West 22 Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 243 0200

Installation view of the exhibition under review
Installation view of the exhibition under review

Rebecca Warren’s show is mysteriously titled “Feelings.” Despite her calculated use of irony, I find the emotions invoked here to be both intense and conflicting.  Upon entering the gallery space one might think that this is a show of two different sculptors’ work:  abstract steel compositions sit quietly in dialogue with unfired clay figurative sculptures featuring comically exaggerated feminine curves.  This play of contrasts between the cool restraint of the dark steel and the provocative, caricatured figures hand-worked in white clay gives us an initial clue to the inner conflict that drives the work.  As it turns out, the main conflict is not between abstraction and figuration; this is just a surface manifestation of the deeper issue.  Rather, Warren seems to be asking how she, as a sculptor, can find a place of her own alongside the giants, and how she might make a new contribution while standing in their shadow.  This is a difficult and necessary question for any serious artist, but it is even more fraught when one is female.

One unifying feature of both the steel compositions and the clay figures is that they both quote heavily from older male predecessors.  The abstract steel pieces are direct descendants of Anthony Caro and Richard Serra.  The clay figures are a hybrid.  The imagery is based on R. Crumb, but the style evokes Picasso and Giacometti.  The wheeled platform beneath one of the sculptures is a nod to David Smith. What keeps Warren from being merely a mimic of these masters is the distance that she achieves through appropriation and irony.  Her clay figures are modeled with a great touch and sensitivity to weight and proportion.  The shapes themselves, however, are both whimsical and disturbing.  The female form is reduced to a collection of fetishes, of high-heeled feet, calves, thighs, buttocks, breasts, and pudenda.   The heads, when there are heads, are shrunken down so that they look phallic balanced on the figures’ long necks.  Warren pushes the artistic representation of the female body to its most absurd extreme and thereby takes on the larger issue of the female nude in art.  She seems to be simultaneously poking fun at the tradition and at the same time leveling a serious challenge against it, all the while acknowledging that she cannot simply reject her artistic heritage.

Nanon 2009. Reinforced clay on paintied MDF plinth, 73 x 33-1/2 x 25-3/4 inches. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Nanon 2009. Reinforced clay on paintied MDF plinth, 73 x 33-1/2 x 25-3/4 inches. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Warren enacts a similar distancing gesture with the steel compositions.  Upon close inspection of two of the pieces, one finds a small fuzzy pompom incongruously attached to the surface.  The ironic intention is obvious, although its aim is less clear.  Is she making fun of Serra and Caro, or is she making fun of herself for wanting to make work like them?  Whichever the meaning, the joke falls flat here.  The pompom itself, however, might well serve as a fitting emblem for the feelings behind the work.  It seems as though the underlying anxiety here is of being merely a cheerleader for the tradition:  an acolyte but never an actor.  Warren self-consciously appropriates for herself the emblems of the cheerleader with these works.  After all, cheerleaders are known for their exaggerated feminine curves, they hold pompoms, and they stay on the sidelines as showy but ineffectual mascots, relegated to supporting the men on the field.  Warren, of course, is a real player, but the question is whether she depends too much on the language of irony in reassure herself, and her audience, of that fact.