Friday, April 15, 2011

Rachel Whiteread - Long Eyes

Inhabiting the Luhring Augustine gallery for the eighth time, Rachel Whiteread presents her latest exhibition, Long Eyes. London-based Whiteread has a distinguished career. Emerging in the early '90s as a successful yet understated member of the Young British Artists, Whiteread gone on to receive numerous accolades including the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993. Best known for her inverse cast resin process, Long Eyes presents a number of sculptures of that genre while introducing a few more recent works.

Casting a warm yellow impression, Threshold II exemplifies the play between material and shadow. At over six feet tall, the life-sized sculpture leans simply against the gallery wall. Constructed in two parts, the goldenrod colored sculpture is a model of Whiteread’s well-known technique. By casting both sides of a household door in resin and fusing them together, Whiteread creates an imprint of negative space; that is to say, a physical representation of the exterior area of the door. In this alternate universe, recessed panels become protrusions, and expected hardware fixtures become sunken depressions.

Whiteread is known to draw upon everyday objects that hold significance in her life. For example, a recent installation at the Tate Modern consisted of mountains of negative spaced cardboard boxes made from polyurethane. The artist remarked her inspiration for the work came from her mother’s recent death, and the unending amount of packing and moving boxes involved with such an event. We can perhaps assume such biographical inspiration lies at the root of objects such as Threshold II. Yet, what makes Threshold II conceptually attractive is its ability to transcend the artist’s personal reflection and encapsulate language in an objectified form. If we read Threshold II as part of an artistic language it most certainly conveys a message of action, a transition. The work contains an inherent sense of dynamism. It prompts a desire in the viewer to perform a routine action, opening a door, yet not only is the work a false door, it is an anti-door. This contradiction cuts viewer’s reading of the work mid-stream, creating energy similar to a bisected diagonal line. Indeed the presentation of Threshold II – simply leaning diagonal against the gallery wall – evokes similar sentiment. It recalls scenes of home improvement, the simple task of repainting or striping a door. Yet Threshold II, a vestige of a door, has no home to be rehung, it has been disconnected from our reality.

Following a similar vein is Daylight, another of Whiteread’s resin sculptures. Mounted to the wall, the four foot sculpture presents us with the negative space encompassing the upper and lower portions of a double-hung window. Cast in an mauve resin, the work is comprised mainly of squares and rectangles. This largely geometric composition recalls the minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd, not directly, but invites the comparison. Both artists are considered successful minimalist sculptors, and by examining the similarities we are able to see why, in addition to the reasons discussed earlier, Whiteread’s works are compelling. If we look to Judd’s work we often encounter cube forms. But these shapes are not closed. They are regularly opened up, revealing the interior space of the structure. This is accomplished by removing one or two of the sides of the cube permitting the viewer access to the normally imaginary interior space of a shape. By doing this Judd’s cubes become almost completely exterior. The sculptures are made up of mostly all external surfaces. Whiteread refines this concept further by using familiar objects, not abstract forms. The viewer knows what a door, or in this case, a window should look like. Whiteread uses the viewer’s inherent knowledge of what the object should look like to more successfully convey the notion that we are looking at a totally external object. To compound this concept of complete externality Whiteread uses a transparent or semi-transparent material for her sculptures. By allowing the viewer to see through the object any notion of possible internal space is dispelled. Of course, externality in itself is not the only criterion when judging a sculpture. Yet, from a formal perspective it does explore why Whiteread works are compelling.

An aspect that also plays an important role in Whiteread’s work is surface. In her 2010 work Squashed we see the role of surface come to the forefront of her interests. Seemingly a departure from her resin casts, Squashed presents two relief prints on hand made paper. Irregularly shaped and flat, they are mounted and hung in a frame. The two prints seem to present the remains of a squashed can or tin, as if found on the side of the road. An earthly rust patina covers the surface, and you are able to discern contour lines which, now flat, once defined its three-dimensional shape. Squashed relates to Whiteread’s other work in that it deceives us with its intended surface. It is a trompe l'oeil, a simulacrum, an object that is, and isn’t.

Whiteread’s work is strangely compelling; they have a simple gravity that draws you in. Long Eyes presents her well known resins works along with other resent experiments such as Squashed. With some effort, one can make the conceptual connection between the different styles of her work presented yet the exhibition does not aid us along that avenue. Relegated to the back room the non-resin works are presented as an afterthought. Nonetheless, Long Eyes, while not breaking any new ground does give us some insight on the direction Whiteread is heading.


  1. I think this is a very clear written and interesting article. I wonder if your argumentation about the “trompe l'oeil, a simulacrum, an object that is, and isn’t” could be established earlier in the article because it does apply to all her work? And if you going to compare her with Judd you might also talk more about the differences, since Whiteread is depiction something and Judd don’t. In her depiction of negative space I think she gives the work an emotional quality, especially when she brings up her mothers death in relation to the boxes. I think you are arguing for that quality, but could be a little more specific and personal in your response.

  2. A couple of typos and grammatical errors are in the review. In the beginning of the second paragraph, why are the title and the fact that the exhibition is composed of two room in the same sentence? If they are connected, it is not clear why (to me). Shouldn't her interest in vision and the name of the show be two thoughts paired together instead?

    I really like your use of "haunting" and "hungry ghost". They match your description of the show well, as well as my impression of the show.

    I'm not quite sure I agree with your comparison to Judd's sculptures. The statement: "Whiteread refines this concept further by using familiar objects, not abstract forms" - how does using a familiar or representational form refine a concept? Some will argue the opposite.