Rachel Whiteread b. 1963


Galleria Lorcan O'Neill, Rome

Private Collection, USA


Since her student days Rachel Whiteread has been engaged with the appropriation of everyday and familiar objects which she has used to explore the broader themes of architecture, space, absence, and memory. Whiteread's practice focuses on the process of casting from objects; inverting traditional casting methods, she uses the objects themselves as moulds, transforming their interior spaces into solid forms. She has developed this casting process into an ambitious and highly sophisticated formal language, and is now regarded as one of the most important sculptors of her generation.

Whiteread's casts do not have the same function as the objects from which they were made. With their original purpose now redundant, they exist as ghostly traces, which evoke the memories, physical experiences and human interactions associated with the original object. As positive entities conjured from negative space, her sculptures make manifest the emotions and physicality latent within a space or object. Through the casting process, the object is stripped of much of its surface detail, leaving behind a new version which is strangely anonymous, unbranded and without its original colour. No longer tied to a singular object, or specific individual experience, Whiteread's sculptures function on a grander scale, suggesting more universal themes.

Several writers and critics have noted the connection between the artist's recent sculpture and the vocbulary of painting. Chris Townsend relates Whiteread's work to the tradition of vanitas painting, noting that both have a concern with the everyday and the imitation of the unseen

Similarly, Jennifer Gross has noted a link with Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's cool scrutiny of objects. Whiteread herself has often discussed her interest in the still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. The present work is part of a series of small scale sculptures which share an explicit reference to the tradition of still life painting and specifically Morandi's still lifes. Several similar works are currently on display at The Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna's exhibition, Rachel Whiteread: Study for Room, 24 January - 4 May 2014, which explores her recent work in relation to Giorgio Morandi's Natura Morta, 1956 and other early still lifes such as Still Life, 1956 (Fig.1).

In 2005, Whiteread moved to a smaller studio and, tired of working with assistants, she began working alone on small scale sculptures. These works were still concerned with architecture and form, but were much smaller than some of her most well-known works such as House, 1993 and Untitled (Floor), 1994-5 (Figs. 2 & 3). Here in Model III, the arrangement and scale of Whiteread's boxes placed together on a shelf directly recall the bottles and boxes which comprise a Morandi's still life. Whiteread's muted tones of grey, white and, sometimes, yellow, echo the austere and simplified tonal range of Morandi's paintings, in which he used only a limited palette to imitate light and form. Even the edges of Whiteread's cast objects seem to echo the uneven silhouettes of Morandi's boxes and bottles which are painted onto the canvas in irregular lines. The objects appear, in both artist's works, as impressions of the originals and they are vital not for their likeness, but for the way in which they seem to articulate the energy of the original form.

In Model III, the casting process has rendered invisible any labels or printed text that might have been present on the original. However, closer inspection of the sculpture reveals highly intricate plaster impressions on the surface of each cast, indexical traces of the objects past existence. This erasure of surface (painterly) qualities, and consequent emphasis on the formal (sculptural) qualities, shifts the viewer away from a purely aesthetic reading, towards a more existential understanding of the objects.

Whiteread's sculptures are a reminder of both the immediate past, in the form of the original object, and simultaneously of the present, in the object's new form. It is this temporal quality which lends all of her oeuvre a strong sense of mournfulness and nostalgia. By taking ordinary, domestic objects and recasting them, Whiteread encourages us to confront and re-evaluate those aspects of our own experience which lay beneath the surface of everyday reality.

As Jennifer Gross has summarized,

'Whiteread encourages us- as well as herself - not to see beyond our real means, but rather to see what is right in front of our noses. The ideal she wishes us to apprehend is carpe diem, the seizing of the present. There is no mystery of mastery in her work but the present interface of life and matter at hand…Like Chardin, Whiteread literally pulls out the surface and spaces of her new world and from this humble store she casts for us objects through which we encounter unremarkable yet significant reflections, of our present time, our unseen life.'

Rachel Whiteread (b.1963) has received several international awards including the Turner Prize in 1993, for House. She represented Great Britain at the 1997 Venice Biennale and has been the subject of solo exhibitions at many important institutions including the Kunsthalle (Basel), Reina Sofa (Madrid), Serpentine Gallery (London) and the Deutsche Guggenheim (Berlin).