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White Gray Black

Rachel Whiteread (British, born 1963)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

English sculptor, draughtsman and printmaker. She studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic (1982–5) and sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art (1985–7). Employing traditional casting methods and materials that are commonly used in the preparation of sculptures rather than for the finished object, such as plaster, rubber and resin, she makes sculptures of the spaces in, under and on everyday objects. Her art operates on many levels: it captures and gives materiality to the sometimes unfamiliar spaces of familiar life (bath, sink, mattress or chair), transforming the domestic into the public; it fossilizes everyday objects in the absence of human usage; and it allows those objects to stand anthropomorphically for human beings themselves. Her practice borrows formally from Minimalism and intellectually from conceptual art, displaying impersonal, austere and mass-produced objects as transformed and personalized through use, so that the viewer may revisit the objects and emotions of the quotidian world.

Whiteread’s choice of subject-matter reflects an awareness of the intrinsically human-scaled design of the objects with which we surround ourselves and exploits the severing of this connection, by removal of the object's function, to express absence and loss. Her early work allowed autobiographical elements: Shallow Breath (1988) is a cast of the space beneath a bed, similar to the one in which the artist was born. A seemingly Minimalist piece, it contains evidence of the detritus of the human corporeal occupation of the real object in the somewhat unsavoury adherence of dust to the plaster surface. Ghost (1990; London, Saatchi Gal.) is a plaster cast of the space of a North London living room, similar to that in which the artist grew up. The window frames, fireplace, door and light switches are preserved in functionless form in the plaster, creating a perfect negative imprint of an interior that, paradoxically, shuts the viewer out. Whiteread has described the work as ‘mummifying the sense of silence in the room’. Later works move towards the expression of a universal human position, and their titles become correspondingly more prosaic. Untitled (Amber Bed) (1991; Nîmes, Carré A.) is formally close enough to the original object that it could fulfil its original function, while its bent form also evokes the pitifulness of a slumped human figure.

Whiteread is one of the few artists of her generation to have produced monumental public sculptures. In 1993 she was awarded the Turner Prize just after creating House (1993; destr. 1994, see House) a life-sized replica of the interior of a condemned terraced house in London’s East End made by spraying liquid concrete into the building’s empty shell before its external walls were removed. House was a monument to lost domestic space and to a whole way of life, evoking the former occupants through their very absence and through the entombment of the space. Its controversial creation and destruction made it a focus for public debate about the role of contemporary art. Similar ideas and controversy underlie the Holocaust memorial for the Judenplatz in Vienna, one of the most prestigious sculptural commissions in Europe in the 1990s. Whiteread’s winning proposal, which was finally unveiled in October 2000 after considerable political wranglings, involved placing the cast interior of a library in the centre of the square. It combined an impression of the pages of books, rather than their spines, and the space that remains between them and the backs of the shelves, together with the impenetrable library doors in relief. It draws powerfully on the idea of the Jewish race as the 'people of the book', and recalls Israel's decision to remember the victims of the Holocaust by donations of books to libraries. Whiteread represented Britain at the 1997 Venice Biennale.

Octavia Nicholson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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