When is a door not a door? Rachel Whiteread at the Gagosian Gallery

By Kat Hayes

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled 2012. © Mike Bruce/ Gagosian Gallery
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled 2012. © Mike Bruce/ Gagosian Gallery

Rachel Whiteread ‘Detached’
Until May 25 2013
Gagosian Gallery

Rachel Whiteread was one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) who dominated British art during the 1990s. She was also the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993. They are no longer, technically, “young” but they are now household names.

I have followed her work closely since my own art college days, where we students pored and picked over the images from Saatchi’s Sensations as carefully as we did the bargain aisle in the supermarket.

The art world was abuzz with this new wave of artists but Whiteread’s work struck a chord with me, as much of a fan for her art as her technical prowess — speaking both as a surface anorak and finding as much to admire in the White Cube’s poured concrete floor as Chuck Close’s retrospective on show (sorry Chuck).

And for a self-confessed cast-bodger — ratios are lost on me — a chance to see Whiteread’s new pieces was a rare treat.

Famed for her casts from everyday objects, she focuses her attention not on the object itself but the space beneath or around it. Working in rubber, plaster and resin, the material faithfully records the tiny intricacies of the original.

Despite not a sniff of the obligatory paint-stripping Chardonnay on offer at preview night — perhaps a wise move given St Martins’ relocation to the close proximity of the gallery: art students can sniff out a drop of free booze like a shark detects blood — there was much to enjoy.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled 2012. © Kat Hayes
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled 2012. © Kat Hayes

As you enter the first room are what at first seem concrete pillboxes or bunkers are in fact all casts of the humble garden shed (Untitled 2012)). Rendered into grey concrete, these familiar shapes take on a cold, uninviting quality — steely monoliths or guardians of a closed off world.

Aptly, these everyday objects are entirely divorced from their context or orginal use (hence the show’s title “Detached”) but all three hark back to early works such as Ghost, 1990 (a cast of an entire room) and House, 1993 (a concrete cast of the inside of an entire Victorian terraced house now demolished).

Once past the initial foreboding of these strange monoliths, I found I could engage and interact with all three. Perhaps it’s because they are familiar or maybe it’s the nature of the material — sturdy and robust, not fragile and precious.

Sidling around each piece, it’s easy to inspect the perfect wood impressions, the jagged shape of the slats, the locks and even the hardboard roof of one of the sheds, all faithfully recorded — plenty for an anorak to enjoy.

After such gargantuan commissions like the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (1996) and 14,000 polyethylene boxes installed at the Tate Modern (Embankment 2005-6), the sheds seem understated, both in scale and nature. but are perhaps all the better for it. It seems an intimate affair.

Yet it was the new series in the back room that was to provide the real ripples. Like an assembled audience, ghostly impressions of doors and windows in shades of rose, eau-de-nil and steely resin glow create an eerie spectacle from their positions around the room.

© Kat Hayes
© Kat Hayes

The casts glow and shine with both absorbed and reflected light. Perhaps more disconcertingly, like an invasion of the body snatchers, these impressions of fictional objects mimic their original functions — doors propped against the walls and windows set at eye level.

Although in essence this new series is a development on the theme of negative space and not a radical departure, what proved a revelation for me was being able to see inside the casts. You are confronted with the ghostly hulk of the original object staring back at you. The impression is quite unnerving, with the detail in such crystal clarity.

I am unlucky enough to never have seen Whiteread’s earlier large-scale resin works such as Untitled (Floor)(1994) and One Hundred Spaces (1995) in the flesh which are similarly less opaque — so for me, the transparency of the casts and the original cocooned inside felt radically different to both past work — and even the work in the next room. The new pieces are much more fluid in some ways, less obstinate and obstructive, less dense and solid — tantalisingly giving you a glimpse of what you cannot access.

art of me wondered whether not allowing the viewer to see past the surface is something has worked against Whiteread’s pieces in the past. Say in the case of House (1993), would it have been spared its untimely fate if it were cast in translucent resin? Maybe.

It is also interesting if you relate these translucent forms to that of architecture. Does one need to be able to physically inhabit architecture for it to be architecture — or can it exist in only what the eye can see? I would urge architects to go and ponder.

What was also interesting was to see a little of Whiteread’s thought processes. Positioned almost as an aside in the entrance lobby were prints and renderings of found objects — and crushed tin cans, small casts and maquettes in glass cabinets and 2D cardboard constructions mounted on the wall.

So, in essence the show was for me, a revelation but for some, it will be just another step along in the preoccupation with the void.

This review was first published on www.bdonline.co.uk