Rachel Whiteread used to be an excellent answer on Pointless to the name a Turner Prize Winner question. She is probably more famous now, particularly with her show at Tate Britain which runs until January 2018. She is perhaps most famous for doing a cast of a house in Bow back in the early 90’s.
Casting things is very much her thing and as far as I know there is no one else doing it, at least no one else I have encountered, all there are plenty of people working in the monumental, structural sculpture scene. Most of these then are the kind of works that you only ever see in galleries or public spaces. I have a preference for art that is or at least could be more personal. Something you could conceivably own and have in your house (assuming you could afford it).
One of the interesting things about the exhibition is that Tate Britain have stripped out the internal walls of the exhibition space so it is just a vast hall. This extended space is in itself interesting to see and I found myself marveling at the architecture of the Tate. It is also necessary given some of the enormous pieces on display (as shown in the picture above).
Dominating the room are casts of the inside of a building and casts of the underside of a stair case. Having these so generously housed allows you to orbit round them and play the game of what is it? And how did she do it? I followed two architects round for a bit and it was interesting to hear them speculate on this.
My favourite of these larger pieces was a cast of a bookshelf (above). Arranged in 4 rows she has somehow managed to capture the back of the books and the marks of the pages in the casting. What I would have been liked to do, but couldn’t was pass down between the shelves.
Incidentally there was one annoying aspect of the exhibition. The pieces are protected by laser alarm systems, which beeps if you, or any part of you crosses the taped lines on the floor. Periodically someone does this and so frequent chirps of various pitches jar you as you walk round.
My favourite of her castings though are the ones done in wax or resin. There are a number of these including one of my favourite pieces usually on display in Tate Modern which is just a series of resin oblong blocks arranged on the floor. I like the texture of these. I like the slightly edible looking quality and I like especially the light filters through them and gives them a sort of internal glow.
There were several pieces done like this including casts of chairs and tables, an orangey structure that I could not identify and a transparent colourless dolls house. I have to say I prefer the coloured ones. They reward more scrutiny.
This then represents my main problem with Whiteread’s work, there is an initial wow factor, then a period of intellectual enquiry but after that there is nothing really to keep you looking at most of the works. There are a series of doors and floor tiles in one corner (I had seen some of the doors before at the Gagosian) that are, well I have to say dull. The best ones of these are the wax or transparent ones where you can gaze into them and see the way they refract and reflect light.
In addition to the sculptures there are some Agnes Martin like drawings, and little collages which are quite interesting. There are some also some smaller casts and some of the smaller ones are more interesting, I think because they are on a more human scale, such as the “Torsos” cast from the inside of waterbottles (picture above). Anyway with these also I was drawn to the waxy ones.
Some of the most interesting stuff is actually on display outside the exhibition and can be seen for free. So for example there are display cases (Vitrines is their official name) housing her note books, smaller models and early castings (such as shoes) and these are very interesting and often very good. There are also photos and models of larger works she has done round the wall and a video about the construction of the famous house.
For me though the best piece was out in the large middle hall. Whiteread had been allowed to select some piece of people she liked for display and you can see her influences here. Roughly in the middle though is a large grid of different coloured, wax casted underside of chairs. These really worked for me. It helped they were under a large window so would glow with a warm inner glow every time sunlight hit them. The various shapes and colours kept me enrapt for quite some time. Even if you don’t fancy paying for the full exhibition it is worthwhile popping in just to see this.
As you leave the Tate (or enter) you are rewarded with another piece, a cast of the inside of shed. It does work better outside but it is next to a Henry Moore and frankly doesn’t measure up.
Incidentally the Tate used to do presentation packs of postcards, but just recently the seem to have stopped doing it. I am slightly miffed. In other news as of last week I now spend one day a week painting in the studio. It is super fun and going very well.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.