Looking at Rachel Whiteread’s latest show, you can understand author Harper Lee’s dilemma. There she was with her 1960 book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, a work so singular and in touch with the zeitgeist, and fully recognised as such, that the author lost the ability to even try to eclipse it.
Whiteread’s ‘Mockingbird’ was 193 Grove Road in Hackney, the artwork ‘House’, which won the artist the Turner Prize in 1993. A concrete casting of the inside of a Victorian home, the work was monumental, ceremonial and of touching humanity at the same time. Martyred when it was demolished by Hackney Council a year later, it set the bar for her output.
But unlike Harper Lee, she’s striking out. ‘Detached’, her latest show, continues the casting idea, but also hearkens back to her poignant 1991 double bed against a wall, of amber rather then concrete. Here, the subject of her study is not the ghost house, but the garden shed, where three sit inertly in the main space. It’s an interesting twist for her – a shed is not occupied like a house, but it nevertheless maintains an indigenous cultural resonance as a form of refuge. It can be an intimate space, yes, but more an idealised than experiential one. Like Abbe Laugier’s 1755 Primitive Hut, the concept of it is actually more important than the reality. These pieces consequently don’t have the emotive power of her earlier works, but you nonetheless sense some esoteric intellectual notion being grasped at.
In the adjacent room a set of exquisite pale coloured resin reverse panels either hang or lean against the walls. Casts of doors and windows, the skill of the casting gives the pieces a strange, uncanny beauty. The pieces are not all obvious negatives either – each needs to be worked out and so unsettle the viewer. The clue seems to be in the title – the simplest door casts are just called c1760, c.1860, marking the period of the door. ‘Look! Look! Look! is six panes in an old casement merged in the casting process to three, with all the details of the casement there, beautifully extrapolated. But they are now thick, heavy dead weights of pale green transparent resin, the fragile ghost of the actual object locked within. ‘Ocular’ is a round window cast in yellow resin. Fixed to the wall its weight would crush your feet if it fell off and landed on them; but as it was sitting there like a giant boiled sweet, I just wanted to lick it.
So has Whiteread really moved on from ‘House’? Yes. A piece like that, so big in all respects, burns a house-shaped hole in the silver bromide of everything that follows it, but in little ways here, the artist suggests alternative ways of thinking about spaces. Whiteread’s appealing more to our heads than our hearts, which makes her job more difficult, but not impossible and this work seems more nuanced as a result. In a hyper-connected world where it is increasingly difficult to be alone, with these isolated works lost in the volume of the gallery, Whiteread seems to celebrate the potential of its attainment.
‘Detached’ runs at London’s Gagosian Gallery, Britannia St NW1 until 25 May 2013