A Review of Rebecca Warren at Tate St Ives, Cornwall
Tate St Ives has always been at odds with its surrounding landscape. Situated opposite Porthmeor beach, the architects, Eldred Evans and David Shalev designed the space to echo the shapes of the former gasworks. Inevitably, they included its iconic rotunda, but also added a vast glass frontage through which to view the Atlantic. Unfortunately, this asset was also its downfall. Upon entering the building it was fairly obvious that the gallery wasn’t designed with art in mind: there’s limited wall space, the rooms are fragmented and pokey with the exception of one larger gallery, which is…curved.
Its biggest battle however, is not the awkward layout, but what it has to compete with – the physical and contextual backdrop of St Ives itself. Famous for its School of Painting and later for the modernists like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson who migrated to Cornwall, the gallery's permanent collection always had to integrate with the current exhibition. This posed its own set of challenges. The gallery’s long awaited extension opened in October last year, and was designed by Jamie Fobert. It's not only been a welcome addition, but a necessary one.
To say that the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Rebecca Warren: All That Heaven Allows, was a long time coming is something of an understatement. This is the artist’s first major UK exhibition in eight years despite her international acclaim. Yet for those who recognise Warren’s tactile forms, this exhibition may come as a surprise. Both new and previously unseen work are on display including those made from steel and neon as well as a selection of collages – mediums the artist is little known for.
The show is hemmed in by a sculpture made from steel and aptly titled, The Sea (2017). Like the horizon opposite the gallery, the work forms a definite line across the space. Its flatness and alchemic finish has the machismo stance of a Richard Serra sculpture – a connection Warren likely acknowledges as she frequently draws upon existing works by modern masters and contemporary artists.
It stands in contrast to the organic nature of a cluster of sculptures entitled, Aurelius, There’s No Other Way, New Large Sister and The Three (all works 2017) situated in the middle of the space. Both figurative and abstract, three of these works ooze pastel colour paint – pink, yellow and baby blue – with the occasional navy blotch. The remaining sculpture has been left in its original bronze, the pock-marked surface highlights how the artist’s fingers have gripped and manipulated the clay before being cast. Their curvaceous shapes evoke female nudes or ancient Greek vases and their forms are both familiar and mysterious. Warren relates these anthropomorphic works to the pagan totems or ancient standing stones found in West Cornwall. Indeed, they each have a mystical quality, a presence, a spirituality.
Five sculptures from her Los Hadeans series, a Greek term for the underworld and later a geographical epoch, are nothing less than Giacometti-esque, their postures elongated and elegant. Like their larger counterparts the works have been roughly painted but in corrosive colours: bronze, rusty red, copper green and greyish blues. The sculptures are demure in scale and yet each has their own personality – one appears to pirouette while another subtly leans into the space having grown a flag from its body.
Warren’s collages act as a departure from her sculptures and yet their balance and composition echoes their messy and yet perfectly-formed composition. She assembles collections of beach-combed treasures: string, twigs, clay, and pieces of driftwood, on panels of cheap MDF. Perhaps they're an ode to Alfred Wallace, a local outsider artist and national treasure who often painted on cardboard and panelling. Occasionally she includes a squiggle of bright pink neon or hides a fuzzy pompom under a short plank of wood. As with the rest of Warren’s work, they are something of an enigma. It’s unclear whether these pieces are working drawings or finished seascapes.
Cornwall’s rich history and beautiful coastal landscape has always brought a sense of pride to its residents. With this in mind, Warren has sensitively created an accessible and generous exhibition. Crucially, Foberts beautiful new gallery space means that she hasn't been forced to compromise on scale. The inclusion of the odd Minnie Mouse bow or fluffy pompom lets us know however, that her sense of humour is still ever-present.
Written by Wilhemina Madeley, a Contributor to Arteviste.