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 concrete cast of an architectural interior shares a few similarities with her more recent work, but also seems more robust. “House” made the transparent concrete, and inverted the relationship of space to container, presence to absence, and 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 space enclosed by 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 by its removal. 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. While many of her subsequent works, including some others in this show, follow entirely different threads, Long Eyes returns us to vacant architectural 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 a reference to natural light filtering through windows), and leaned along the wall. The sculptor intervenes more 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, to creating a new space out of an implied absence, one that is in ways antithetical to the spatial behavior of a window. 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 exciting 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 bring the light of a window along with the displaced object in any meaningful way. The light is neither trapped in the anti-window, nor passing out of it, and in a way, here is the biggest problem of the entire conceit – like the solid, opaque “House,” Dawn and Daylight have a awkward relationship to light since they render the transparent void solid. As a result, the colors seem decorative, and functional only 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 pleasant 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 placed on walls, sold, and placed on other walls. The work comments on this, and so it works well. But that Whiteread makes such comments on the whole endeavor betrays her lack of faith in such saleable work. WC 876