Rachel Whiteread is best known to many for her Turner Prize-winning 1993 sculpture “House,” in which the lone Victorian house to escape urban renewal on its block was filled with concrete and then pulled away and discarded, as if it had only ever been a mold for the sculpture. This striking piece shares a few similarities with her more contemporary work, as may be seen at Luhring Augustine through the 30th of this month, but also seems fuller. “House” made the transparent concrete, and inverted the relationship of space to container, presence to absence, in doing so commenting on its desolate surroundings.
In Long Eyes, her present show at Luhring Augustine, the artist does quite the opposite. The key pieces of the show are a series of casts of windows in clear resin. In “House,” the window had been the trickiest architectonic element because it was simply lost. The process removed any purposefulness or reason for interest in windows, since the interior through the barrier of the object – the house – became the object itself, and since all transparency within the visible space that a window offers was lost at the same time that perfect transparency through the architecture was achieved. The complex nature of a viewer’s relationship to “House” can be summed up rather well in the problems of the windows, a fact that is itself satisfying.
All this reference to “House” seems apt, though it is hardly the defining piece of Whiteread’s, merely one of her best known. While many of her subsequent works, including some others in this show, follow entirely different threads, Long Eyes returns us to vacant architectonic space. The windows play their roles rather directly – they are transparent, though colored (the titles, things like Dawn, Daylight, and Dark, point to this coloring being an abstraction of the light that comes through windows in situ), and hung along the wall. The sculptures are more mediated in this case, with the casts of either side being attached back to back to create a sort of composite anti-window. It would be hard to do this any other way, of course, since casting an open box leaves one side undefined, which Whiteread avoids. A side effect of this, however, is that we get the presence-in-absence as before, but of an imaginary and irrelevant space. In flipping and merging, Whiteread travels from simply capturing the space of an object-of-absence, like an archeologist at Pompeii, to creating a new space out of an implied absence. That new space is strange in that it implies the entirety of everything other than the window. The gallery, the viewer, and everything else in our world, has become the window pane that pushes against it, while the object has become the exterior world viewed through it. The objecthood and otherness of the art piece has been reversed, to a certain extent, and while this is quite clever it would be better if it were somehow carried further; instead the objecthood of the piece is in every other way confirmed.
The connection between color and the sense of place that it creates adds a aesthetic element to the work, which is otherwise not very exiting to actually view. The color of light that fills a space gives it visual and affective identity. Here, that light is presumed to be daylight (or, as in the case of Dark, its absence), and its source the window that the pieces negate – this assumption is necessary to continue the binding of interior and exterior into one form. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The colors fail to embody the light that they lay claim to, and the coloring does nothing to overcome the artifice in any meaningful way. The light is neither trapped in the anti-window, nor passing out of it, and in a way, we are here given the biggest problem of the entire conceit – like the solid, opaque “House,” Dawn and Daylight have a awkward relationship to light since they directly contradict the parameters that allow it to enter the environments they reference. As a result, the colors seem decorative and functional for differentiating between pieces. Whiteread succeeds in calling to mind windows (of course it would be hard for her not to), but she fails to conjure any sense of the light that goes through them – the experience, in other words, of a window in action. This is an obvious result of taking something like a window, or a house, and rendering the transparent, empty parts concrete, and she would be better served by using it to her advantage than by fighting it with designer colors.
The anti-windows of Long Eye are most interesting as art commenting on art, since they reference the traditional connection between two-dimensional wall art and illusionistic windows. Though, just as they are a complete antithesis of a window and an object, they are also the opposite of a tromp l’oeil, showing the artifice of hanging an object on a wall and calling it a view. Unlike an illusionistic painting or a photograph, we can see right through them.
Comparisons to “House” are unfair since this is gallery work, meant to be hung on walls, sold, and hung on other walls. As such, it works well, commenting on its condition as such. But that Whiteread makes such sarcastic comments on the whole endeavor betrays her lack of faith in that media. “House” also commented bleakly on its existence, but in doing so it spoke to a greater dialogue than simply art.