Rebecca Warren

Dark Passage


Large-size figures of unfired clay which grotesquely exaggerate the characteristic traits and trademarks of female sexuality (breasts, calves, buttocks) have made a name for British artist Rebecca Warren (1965). And she is now presenting the first solo museum show of her works, entitled «Dark Passage». On view is a group of her most recent large figurines together with small-format clay scenes on pedestals, and three-dimensional collages in showcases.

«Dark Passage» is a name the artist borrowed from the world of movies: In 1947, Hollywood dream couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred in the film of the same name. The plot: accused of murdering his wife the protagonist escapes from prison and has a plastic surgeon create a new face for him so he can prove his innocence under a new identity. We hear all this in the course of half an hour seen from Bogart’s point of view as restricted by the gauze and bandaging masking his face.

The image Warren selected for the show’s promotional poster stems from the photo archives of the National Library in Canada: we see ground being broken for a new railroad line in the Rocky Mountains – land reclamation, male heroes facing tough «perspectives», conquest and settlement, optimistic views of what is possible, technology and nature – a cosmos of associations and references, which are constant features of the artist’s works, and which combine to form new images and narratives.

Rebecca Warren’s oeuvre frankly references a veritable array of masters from the history of art: Degas, Rodin, Boccioni, Picasso, Fontana, the German Expressionists, and Neo-Expressionists such as Robert Crumb. It also brings to mind the works by Martin Kippenberger, Fischli & Weiss’ clay sculptures, and the hostile and eye-striking aggressiveness but substantive subtlety of Sarah Lucas’ works.

Rebecca Warren’s art likewise unites popular culture and advanced civilization, feministic and psychological debate. All this is not primarily some ironic statement or the offended criticism fired by the traditional male portrayal of the female body. Warren is not actually concerned with these male artists as such, seeking rather to position herself directly as the next in the traditional lineage. Her large «women» seem to confidently and brazenly flaunt the insignia of their desirability. Her work is akin to an exciting narrative on the topics of figurative portrayal, representation and fiction.

In 2003, the artist exhibited a group of six large-sized unfired clay figures entitled «SHE». Once again, Rebecca Warren took the title from the world of the silverscreen, or rather a novel by author H. Rider Haggard, which has since the silent movie era inspired numerous film scripts, and was used for various screen adaptations. Warren references the 1965 film production in which Ursula Andress plays Ayesha. Moving in a post-apocalyptic world in which she depicts the epitome of breathtaking female beauty and strength, she helps two brothers recover their kidnapped sister. The picture for this exhibition showed Sigmund Freud surrounded by his male colleagues. The six gigantic «SHE» figures stand on their own wooden trolleys, a classic means of transport. The sculptures’ surfaces have a coarse, unworked appearance; at times you feel you have before you the original lump of clay. The absence of heads in the figurines is offset by their enormous breasts, undulating, arm-like ornaments, generous calves, and above all the abundance of flesh and clichés from the factory that works bosom wonders. In an adaptation of a working title by Sylvie Fleury you could also name the work group «She devils on wheels».
By contrast, another gigantic unfired clay sculpture melds the fantasies of Robert Crumb and Helmut Newton: «Helmut Crumb» (1998). The female bodies are reduced to their legs. Two pairs of legs together with the lower torso are positioned on a single pedestal like perverted double bridges; the Robert Crumb version is aggressive, the Newton-inspired legs aesthetically sexualized.

Alongside these enormous women in clay, Warren has also created smaller-sized clay works in her studio, some of which she paints with colored glaze. All stand on pedestals, which in many instances are painted in a saccharine hue that advances the idea underlying the work. This group includes, for example, the «Totems» made in 2002, unfired clay figures, smaller versions of the «SHE» works and groups of figurines, from whose undefined mass of clay erotic scenes, figures and landscapes evolve.

In the artist’s three-dimensional collages featuring pieces of wood, wire, cotton wool balls, neon lights and paraphernalia of diverse origins, the same mindset unravels as in the clay figures infused by «female» perception and interpretation. In the three-dimensional collages, the pedestal is again an integral part of the work, as is the case in «Bitch Magic: The Musical» (2001-2003), in which an enormous Perspex hood is placed over a collage of objects – pedestal included - and is thus transformed into a new «pedestal» for a gold-painted plaster form.

Rebecca Warren’s collages are accumulations of items which exude an intimate fiction and defy the logic of the composition. Consider «Every Aspect of Bitch Making» dated 1996: it combines a glass containing a dead bee, an elastic hairband, a shell, a green piece of glass, a pair of panties and a safety needle on a pedestal. A wooden frame which was to serve as a model for a Perspex cover was never replaced – instead, a white envelope leans against it and over this another pair of panties has been pulled whose crotch has been lovingly decorated with washing machine fuzz.

Rebecca Warren’s works often recall the atmosphere of the artist’s studio. You sense the presence of the model in the room though these are virtual, fictional models, a concentrated model cosmos, which composes itself for the purpose of generating topics that recreate themselves.

In Rebecca Warren’s works the grotesqueness of the depiction of the physical is always manifested as the experiencing of one’s own female body. When confronting her work with its exaggerated portrayal of characteristic features of female physiognomy as perceived by an outsider, the observer experiences the «cliché», but also reflection on it as a double exaggeration.

Our communications programm is supported by Swiss Re

The Kunsthalle Zürich thanks: Präsidialdepartement der Stadt Zürich, British Council