The queen of negative space Rachel Whiteread has cast the insides of three lonely little huts and marooned them inside Gagosian’s giant King’s Cross galleries. They might be better suited to a windswept moor, an overgrown garden or a seafront shingle beach, but each head-height structure (all 172cm tall, about the world average for a man) seems tiny enough without the breadth of landscape to belittle them further. The smallest looks like a potting shed but would seem to me to be nigh on impossible to duck through its door, let alone get anything done in there.
Of course, you can’t enter, because Whiteread has filled each shelter in, replacing the air inside with poured concrete before removing the outer walls. The imprinted surfaces recall the wood-pressed exterior of the Hayward Gallery or chi-chi industrial loft interiors of the 1990s, but these sheds are even less functional and somehow even more brutal. Instead of being retreats or safe havens, these works, all entitled ‘Detached’, are solemn and empty homages to the self-imposed cells of solitary confinement, usually inhabited by hobbyist-men of a certain age, to escape their already dreary lives.
Whiteread’s existential cast innards are often described as treatises on domestic, homely spaces, despite their refusal to comment directly on the place of a woman in the home. It could also be argued that there is something undeniably macho about Whiteread’s confident tackling of large-scale projects (see right) and her use of harsh materials, notions again being denied here by these emasculated wood cabins. It’s precisely this dereliction of duty to explain herself as an artist and an ability to slip between the cracks of meaning, which has kept her work so evasively brilliant for so long.
Everyone has their off days, so Whiteread’s second room of see-through resin-cast doors and windows in appealing pastel shades of mauve and green come across as mere concessions to showing in a commercial gallery and seem cynically prepared to fly off the shelves. Her 3D studies, ‘abjects objects’ she calls them, are unnecessarily covered in white gold leaf as if to make them more palatable to collectors. Only her latest paper collages, little aspirin boxes or discarded packets painted white and flattened with tiny stained-glass effect windows, stand out as possible maquettes for future architectural dreams, like plans for churches or cathedrals perhaps.
To some, ‘Detached’ may seem like an artist constantly retreading her own already oft-cast footprints, but every dead-end of Whiteread’s is worth pursuing as she’s never just filling in the blanks.