Since the early 1990s, Rachel Whiteread has been casting the negative space inside and around domestic objects and buildings, conjuring these notional spaces into solid forms. She has developed this apparently simple process into an ambitious and sophisticated formal language and is now regarded as one of the most important sculptors of her generation.
Several writers and critics have noted the connection between the artist’s recent sculptures and the vocabulary of painting. Chris Townsend relates Whiteread’s work to the tradition of vanitas painting, observing that both have a concern with the everyday and with the imitation of the unseen. Similarly, Jennifer Gross sees a link to Chardin’s cool-eyed scrutiny of domestic objects. Whiteread has herself discussed her interest in the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), and Model III forms part of a series of small- scale sculptures that make explicit reference to still-life painting and specifically to Morandi’s work.
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.
Here, Whiteread’s close arrangement of objects, one behind another on a shelf, directly recalls the bottles and boxes of a typical Morandi still-life. The muted tones of grey, white and yellow also echo the austere and simplified colour range of Morandi’s paintings, which invariably present a limited range of pastel tones. The varying heights and even the delicate, jagged seams of Whiteread’s casts, seem to echo the wobbly silhouettes of Morandi’s paintings. Both artists address the difficulty of representation itself, their forms, like ghosts, vital not for their likeness, but for the way they express some essential characteristic of the original objects.
Whiteread’s process contains an inbuilt narrative of loss – that which has gone – and yet her objects simultaneously reinforce an explicit sense of the present. Jennifer Gross describes how, ‘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).