Art Chronicles: Tate St.Ives

After being closed for rebuilding, renovation and refurbishment for what seems like a very long time, it was a surprise to walk into a building that seemed almost overwhelmingly familiar. The gallery spaces, the shop, the cafe … but wait … what is new  and what is pretty wonderful is the new permanent display – Modern Art and St. Ives – which does what, I think, many visitors come to gallery looking for – an in depth survey of the principle British Artists associated with Western Cornwall and St.Ives – Nicholson, Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow –  together with examples of the European and North American artist who inspired them and with whom their work is associated – Nicholson and Marlow Moss, for instance, alongside Mondrian.

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A conscious attempt seems to have been made to include a higher percentage of work by female artists than is all too often the case, including here Margaret Mellish, Marlow Moss and, particularly, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who is represented with three pieces which illustrate the development of her practice, from naively representational through differing kinds of abstraction and an almost fierce use of colour.

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: “Island Sheds, St. Ives, No. 1” 1940

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Rock Theme (St. Just)” 1953 [detail]

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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham : “Red Form” 1954 [detail]

What has been added to the gallery – after lengthy negotiations with residents, the town council et cetera – is a single, large high-ceilinged room, which can be used, as in its initial display, to show the work of a single artist – in this case, Rebecca Warren – or, where necessary, divided by a series of removable walls.

For the exhibition of Warren’s witty and provocative work,  she has chosen the title All That Heaven Allows, taken from the 1955 Douglas Sirk film, which uses both melodramatic narrative form and heightened use of colour to dramatise the situation of a middle-class widow trapped within rigid expectations of class, gender and sexuality. Tall, angular sculptures of human figures are placed at irregular intervals across the room’s wide space; collages in neon vitrines placed here and there on the walls. Once visitors start walking around and between them, the sculptures begin to take on an exaggerated life of their own, commenting on the viewers and on themselves as works of art.

Tate St Ives

The roughly worked, one might almost say deliberately ham-fisted, construction of the figures with their clumpy surfaces and irregular colour, make a marked and deliberate contrast to the smooth surfaces and satisfying curves of the Barbara Hepworth sculptures in the permanent exhibition, just as the wall pieces, with their apparently random, yet personal, selection of objects and use of neon, offer an alternative to the more austere and geometrical work of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo.

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Rebecca Warren : “All That Heaven Allows”

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