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Rachel Whiteread at Luhring Augustine


In her contract with negative space - making it the sine qua non of her oeuvre - Rachel Whiteread generally creates sculptures that beg the interaction of humanity while remaining forbidding, unpopulated, aloof. A ceremony, and therefore a narrative, is implied by her austere castings of the volumes beneath a ceiling, around a stairwell, against a bookshelf, inside a water tank. But this narrative is conspicuously denied. We are set adrift, frustrated in our attempt to give significance to her plinths, altars, sarcophagi. We are thrown back upon an academic contemplation of their formal qualities, all the while yearning to assign them some specific context of human activity, some aspect of the anecdotal, vernacular, religious. But her sculptures remain obdurately obscure to our interpretation. They are, in a word, sphinxlike.

Although Whiteread's work is self consciously monumental, her embrace of the void renders moot any discussion of progress or history, issues which often accompany the civic monument, and which, in fact, are the impetus behind the public commissioning of most monuments. Somberness and existential dread pervade her work, due to what she purposely leaves out - the panoply of ceremony, the celebration of causality. There is no defined back story with Whiteread. It is absent, or at best submerged: a truncated effort. Her emptying out of the “content” rhymes with her hollowing out of the "form". A fashionably pessimistic stance, but one that also realizes the primacy of entropy. In a sense, Whiteread is building a monument to the end of history, like the decomposed, half buried statue in Shelley's poem Ozymandias, which in its devolution still manages to boast: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair".

But a new era of good feeling is apparent in her latest show, up at Luhring Augustine through April 1, in which she domesticates her presentation of negative space by making the sculptures 1. smaller, 2. cast from the insides of corrugated cartons, and 3. arranged in groupings that often incorporate simple wooden furniture (tables and chairs). As an overall installation, it is more intimate and humorous, and accesses the pack rat reality facing many artists and critics – certainly this critic – for whom piled boxes full of press kits, catalogues and other art related papers are a very recognizable motif of apartment living. Whiteread seems to view our compromises with decor (and possibly her own domestic situation) with dry wit and clear-eyed compassion. Storage, or the lack of proper storage, is one of the petty tragedies of contemporary urban life. This is her bittersweet shrine to that small tragedy of real estate. She shows us where we live.

In reducing the scale of the work, Whiteread is eschewing neither formal issues, nor the pleasures of craft, nor detail. The surfaces of her boxes, for example, take up the "grain" of the corrugations or cardboard from which they are cast. The surface quality of the original material is respected and made visible, as is often the case in her larger, architectural castings. But a new quotient of absurdity is added to the object. In their makeshift ranks and piles, teetering ambitiously towards heaven, they evince an ungainly physical vulnerability. The piled groupings, evidently stable, contain a subtext of Humpty Dumpty slapstick. We can imagine that, with one small push, they might all fall down. Whether Whiteread's next body of work furthers this new intimacy and humor, or returns to the monumental, it’s good to know that she can work, as Eminem put it in Eight Mile, both "up there” and “down here".

Addendum, April 2, 2006:

I had heard of Whiteread’s large scale project at the Tate Modern in London, but first saw it pictured today in the Sunday design supplement of the NY Times. Embankment, an installation of tens of thousands of castings from boxes, massive piles reaching towards the ceiling of the Turbine Hall, seems to be big brother to the show at Luhring. It certainly opened in London months before the NY show. The two share the same unitary act of creation: casting from the inside of a cardboard carton. But while the gallery arranges a finite number of objects in a domestic setting, the Tate effort is totally over the top: labyrinthine, oceanic, Biblical in a Noah’s Ark sense. It suggests the last shot of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, when the camera pulls back to reveal a huge warehouse filled with innumerable crates from all corners of the world. Whiteread’s ability to work both “up there” and “down here” can be seen to begin with the same basic building block, but then proceeds polymorphously, with very different intentions and results.