Rachel Whiteread: Thought Provoking Visual Qualities And Poetic Resonance

Rachel Whiteread

Before I went to Rachel Whiteread’s latest exhibition at Gagosian gallery, I read an unkind review in one of the London free newspapers charging her with lacking originality and obeying just another ploy from Larry Gagosian to satisfy his wealthy art collectors. This is just ridiculous. It’s also unfair.

Artists often repeat a theme, or work in a sustained manner for repeated lengths of time, sometimes for their entire career. It does not always imply a lack of originality. The YBA’s, or as Whiteread calls them OBA’s, are an easy mark for scathing comments and although not all those comments are unfounded, this work continues to be thought-provoking, and in my opinion, quite beautiful both for its visual qualities and for its poetic resonance.

Whilst Whiteread’s new works are consistent with her signature style and might not surprise us, I enjoy being reminded of what she does. She evokes the sense of hallowed spaces that were once inhabited, that tell a story, or spaces that witness the human drama, or even objects used by human life; by making manifest in three dimensions, the space of “non-space”, or what is referred to in drawing language as “negative space”.  However, it is not negative as such because space is replete with memory, with traces of movement, thought, and even with possibility. Giacommetti was obsessed with it. He obsessively scrutinised it, and for him, space was definitely alive, and it contained (to paraphrase him) something more interesting than art: it was composed of truth.

More recently in contemporary culture, quantum physics has been pretty trendy. An aspect of it hypothesises the interconnectedness of all things. That means (very crudely speaking) that the space that an object inhabits and the space that surrounds it (negative space) are one and the same. Good formal training for artists will postulate this equally as much. And in life we are generally conditioned to overlook what surrounds an object, so Whiteread’s work is impactful in this regard, both conceptually and visually.

In the main gallery, Detached I, II, III, are concrete and steel casts of the humble garden shed, replete with its connotations of simple domestic bucolic life, its’ activity, storage, or even as places of refuge. The concrete is appropriately dull and lifeless as if the spirit had been sucked out of them. Whiteread venerates the existence they may have had by giving it as much dignity as her famous holocaust memorial. The life the garden sheds record maybe viewed as mundane, but the air has borne witness to consciousness that was once there, however simple it may have been. It’s like an akashic record, which is known in theosophy and anthroposophy, as a compendium of mystical knowledge encoded in a non-physical plane of existence.  As seen in the gallery monograph, these pieces are conceived to fit into landscape, similar to Boathouse (2010) created as a site specific work on a fjord in Norway. With that in mind they are more cogent and would debunk accusations from naysayers who accuse her of cow-towing to wealthy collectors.

In the adjacent galley, in extreme contrast, one gets the impression of stepping into a dream. Translucent resins casts of windows and doors appear to vibrate softly in the faintest hues. I didn’t know whether to stare at them or to lick them. Doors and windows invite metaphors of otherworldly dimensions: the doors of perception, or the windows of the soul. Entrances and exits to places of possibility, of refuge, of travel. They are transitions or thresholds. The doors pieces bear titles such as Circa 1760, indicating their age, and exhibit the traces of ironmongery, crossbars and keyholes that were originally fashioned by the craftsmen. Frozen moments in time inviting calm, reflection, and solitude. And along with works on paper and other smaller cast pieces, the Rachel Whiteread exhibition is well worth seeing.

Words/Photos: Karen Garratt © Artlyst 2013


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Rachel Whiteread: Thought Provoking Visual Qualities And Poetic Resonance