When The Light Shifts

Rebecca Warren lines up a parade of pagan bronzes for Tate St Ives’s newly opened gallery

In Luis Buñuel’s surrealist 1962 film The Exterminating Angel (audaciously realized by Thomas Adès as an opera last year), guests at a dinner party retire to the music room; when the morning comes, they discover that, inexplicably, they cannot leave, and this strange psychological menace swoops the crowd into a raw state of anarchy. The Exterminating Angel has been a deeply influential work for British artist Rebecca Warren over the years, and I sense that same dark comic essence in the mad family of sculptures she’s lined up for her show ‘All That Heaven Allows’, which marks the opening of a new gallery for Tate St Ives. A set of pagan bronzes standing three-metres high create a threatening ring that dominates the space. Here, Warren assembled levels of clay, pummelled and patterned before being cast in bronze. In Aurelius, There’s No Other Way and The Three (all works 2017), the suggestion of an expression, a gesture, or posterior poke out of drools of paint.

Rebecca Warren, Aurelius, 2017, hand painted bronze. Courtesy: © Rebecca Warren, Maureen Paley, London, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin; Photograph: Tate

Rebecca Warren, Aurelius, 2017, hand painted bronze. Courtesy: © Rebecca Warren, Maureen Paley, London, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin; Photograph: Tate

Rebecca Warren, Aurelius, 2017, hand painted bronze. Courtesy: © the artist, Maureen Paley, London, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin; photograph: Tate

Executive Director Mark Osterfield describes Warren’s counter-monuments as ‘the perfect activator’ for the gallery extension at the Tate’s Cornish outpost – part of a GBP£20 million redevelopment – which carves 500 square metres through a cliff-face containing hard blue Elvan rock. Since it opened in 1993 on the site of a former gasworks across from Porthmeor beach, Tate St Ives has been lamed by an inability to display its collection alongside temporary exhibitions, and has had to put up with periodic six-week closures for rehangs. The brief for Jamie Fobert Architects was to meet that need for space while also capturing the essence of St Ives’s delicate, glassy light, which bounces off the water surrounding the land’s edge into the rotunda designed by Eldred Evans and David Shalev. Jamie Fobert Architects had their work cut out for them – original proposals had to be shelved after locals pushed back against plans to block the seascape and remove car parking – and they eventually settled on a five-metre high subterranean solution which doubles the existing gallery space (and Fobert says that they’ve even increased the available car parking).

Exterior of new Tate St Ives gallery by Jamie Fobert Architects, 2017. Courtesy: Tate and Jamie Fobert Architects; Photograph: © Hufton+Crow

Exterior of new Tate St Ives gallery by Jamie Fobert Architects, 2017. Courtesy: Tate and Jamie Fobert Architects; Photograph: © Hufton+Crow

Exterior of new Tate St Ives gallery by Jamie Fobert Architects, 2017. Courtesy: Tate and Jamie Fobert Architects; photograph: © Hufton+Crow

On the building’s exterior, the roof becomes a garden filled with local flora, and the cladding has been finished in hand-glazed blue-green tiling – a nice nod to Bernard Leach. But understanding this latest chapter in the institution’s story means stepping inside the brand-new extension, where the result is a beautiful, column-free chamber of light. ‘You feel the presence of this diffuse light,’ Fobert tells me. ‘It’s about volume and presence, not streams of sunlight’. The ceiling does the work here: those fishing lofts so loved by the St Ives School artists are translated into vast concrete beams, broken up by six large skylights, with enough depth so that the coastal light is properly absorbed and doesn’t wash up harshly against the walls. Fobert worked with environmental engineer Max Fordham to make sure the gallery takes in the warmer light from the south, rather than the cooler hues from the north. On the day I visit, the skyline is masked by cloud, but sunnier intervals transform the space, with light pooling and gently hanging in the centre. If there’s a downside to all this effervescence, it’s that the Evans and Shalev enfilade running into Fobert’s gallery (the original architects were also invited back to expand their half with a new ‘sky studio’ leading onto a terrace) – which houses Tate St Ives’s rich, permanent collection – may now feel like something of an odd curiosity.

Rebecca Warren, ‘All That Heaven Allows’, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Tate

Rebecca Warren, ‘All That Heaven Allows’, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Tate

Rebecca Warren, ‘All That Heaven Allows’, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist, Maureen Paley, London, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin; photograph: Tate

But back to ‘All That Heaven Allows’, Warren’s first major UK show in eight years. Her hefty, playdough-like bronzes – ghostly gestures to Giacometti and Minnie Mouse – drilled into the concrete floor (a nerve-wracking moment for the artist, she tells me), studies in neon and pompoms galore create a contrapuntal parade of ideas across the gallery. There’s a destabilizing lightness to Warren’s work which is a perfect partner for Fobert’s architecture, and she troubles the brooding weight of steel and bronze with the zany addition of a pompom or clumsy bowtie. ‘I like to mix things up, turn things on their heads,’ she said in an interview earlier this year. In Let’s All Chant (reprise) (2017), slices of steel are given a milky-pink lick of paint and a pompom. The slabs of brushed blue-black steel of The Sea (2017) form a big punctuation mark at the gallery entrance, forcing visitors to pause for a moment, restraining the space.

Rebecca Warren, Los Hadeans (III), 2017, hand painted bronze and pompom on painted MDF plinth. Courtesy: © Rebecca Warren, Maureen Paley, London, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin; Photograph: Tate

Rebecca Warren, Los Hadeans (III), 2017, hand painted bronze and pompom on painted MDF plinth. Courtesy: © Rebecca Warren, Maureen Paley, London, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin; Photograph: Tate

Rebecca Warren, Los Hadeans (III), 2017, hand painted bronze and pompom on painted MDF plinth. Courtesy: © the artist, Maureen Paley, London, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin; photograph: Tate

I’m particularly drawn to the confident bronze ruffians of Los Hadeans (2017) – Warren’s title emphasizes their primordial qualities, with a reference to geologic time and mythology – in which ‘proto-humans rise from hell’, as she puts it. Facing them, they may be gloopy and blistered, but they also certainly know how to strike a pose. One even struts balletically. I also find myself lingering around Warren’s rarely displayed collages, in which neon curlicues, shaped after parts of the artist’s face, the curve of a cheekbone or an inverted eye, are made even stranger when mounted on cracked MDF boards alongside paper, string, and other inconsequential detritus. These quiet studies encourage an attention to your own presence, creating moments of idling between the more monumental sculptures. It’s made all the more wonderful by Warren’s decision not to cram the new gallery, to allow the beams of light to animate her stage set instead. ‘I didn’t want something too bombastic’, she says.

Rebecca Warren in her studio, 2017. Courtesy: the artist

Rebecca Warren in her studio, 2017. Courtesy: the artist

Rebecca Warren in her studio, 2017. Courtesy: the artist

If back in 2006, Warren mischievously once said she wanted to create works which looked ‘like they’d been made by a sort of pervy middle-aged provincial art teacher who’d taken me over’, then one leering answer to that sits on a trolley in a corner: an ugly slob of unfired clay in dirty white, brandishing a cane, and brilliantly titled These Patriarchs (2017). With the vicious humour and gender politics set into Warren’s sculptures, under the almost religious light-play of the gallery, your sense of perception begins to shift. By the end, everything should feel slightly off, Warren says, ‘not exactly human’.

Rebecca Warren’s ‘All That Heaven Allows’ runs at Tate St Ives until 7 January 2018

Main image: Interior of new Tate St Ives gallery by Jamie Fobert Architects, 2017. Courtesy: Tate and Jamie Fobert Architects; photograph: © Hufton+Crow

En Liang Khong is assistant digital editor at frieze. His writing on politics and art has been published in Prospect, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph and The New Inquiry. Follow him on Twitter: @en_khong

Most Read

Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson are this year’s nominees
It’s the first statue of a woman placed in Parliament Square, marking the centenary of women’s right to vote
In further news: New York art project fights mass incarceration with house music; Marcia Hafif passes away at 89
From a preview of Konrad Fischer’s new space, to Simon Fujiwara’s thought-provoking commentary on gender bias
The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018