Versailles is a two-part sculpture comprising an organic form modelled in clay standing on a tall MDF plinth. The plinth is painted pale pink. As is typical to Warren’s sculptures, the form is made of NewClay, a self-hardening clay which does not need to be fired. Warren moulded it by hand over a steel and polystyrene armature and then coloured it roughly using acrylic paints. Framed by a row of four large curls of clay resembling flowers, a rounded rosy pink breast juts from the centre of the form, its oversized, brilliantly coloured nipple pointing forwards like a nose and providing the focal point of the sculpture. The flowers are painted black, blue and yellow. Above them, a crudely modelled, four-fingered open hand, also coloured light pink, extends upwards. These identifiable elements emerge from a matrix of squeezed and pressed clay, roughly painted in green, blue and pink, constituting a base of unformed matter.
Combining abstraction with figurative representation, the sculpted part of Versailles recalls the biomorphic forms depicted in numerous paintings, drawings and prints by the American artist Carroll Dunham in the late 1980s and early 1990s and in the more recent print portfolio Female Portraits, 2000 (Tate P11954-966). Identifiable parts mix with unidentifiable parts, the single breast and hand recalling the Surrealist dismembering of the body and fetishisation of female flesh. Warren appears to affirm this tradition in the large-scale clay sculptures of deformed but powerful female figures usually presented on low wheeled platforms (sculptor’s trolleys) for which she is primarily known. Parallel with these are a series of smaller, more abstracted objects presented on plinths, of which Versailles is one. The crudely fashioned, raw clay appearance of all Warren’s sculpture evokes the loosely modelled fired and glazed ceramic sculptures made by Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) from the 1930s into the 1950s, in which figures emerge from and disappear into matter. Often, as in such works as Rose Garden, The Flawed Pedagogy of the Sausage-Maker, Lustmord III and The Pears of Switzerland (all 2004), the lump of modelled clay on the plinth contains a small three-dimensional tableau with one or more whole human figures. In these works, in common with Fontana, the artist plays with degrees of recognisable visibility within the layers of squeezed and pressed clay. Although used for many centuries by sculptures to make models and maquettes, clay has an inherent craft resonance accentuated since Fontana’s time by the introduction of industrially manufactured materials and everyday objects that began to predominate in sculptural practice during the 1960s through the influence of Minimalism and Pop, and which are still common sculptural materials today.
In Versailles, as in other more recent smaller works such as Loulou, 2006, only fragments of bodies are identifiable within the unformed mass. Warren’s exploration of the limits of representation in these works recalls the notion of the informe or formlessness as set out by the French writer-philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1964) in the Surrealist journal he edited in 1929-30 entitled Documents. Bataille described the concept of formlessness as a revelation of an underlying base materiality of things, one which disrupts oppositions between high and low, defying formal definitions. In 1996, cultural theorists Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois introduced Bataille’s notion of formlessness to avant-garde and modernist art practices in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and an accompanying book, entitled Formlessness: A User’s Guide (1997). Versailles problematises definitions in a way that follows Bataille’s principle (and those described by Krauss and Bois, which they applied to Fontana, among other artists): its material suggests ceramics, not traditional to high art, but is roughly and expressively modelled in a way not traditional to ceramics and craft; its title evokes a royal castle famous for refinement, luxury and frivolity but its form is anthropomorphically female; and its structure combines messy and tactile modelling with isolated, exaggerated body parts that recall cartoons. The combination of female body parts with flower imagery reinforces the romantic cliché that allies femininity with flowers, particularly the rose, but the bouquet has a rawness that undercuts this notion of a feminine aesthetic ideal. Viewed from the side, the form may be read as a comic head – the upstretched hand evoking a child’s representation of a crown and the pink nipple a nose reddened as a result of luxurious excess as implied by the title.
Rebecca Warren: Dark Passage, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Zürich 2004.
Turner Prize 2006, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain 2006, [pp.12-13] and [p.15].