Rachel Whiteread

With casts that are vulnerable variations of seemingly mundane and mute objects, Rachel Whiteread creates poignant and melancholy phantoms. Her skewed selection of themes from domestic life, her inventive and poetic use of rather surprising materials, and her thoughtful and unexpected installation of these pieces gives them a decided resonance. Whiteread echoes her subjects, but in her system of altered repetition she both displaces and intensifies meaning.

Beds—or more accurately, mattresses—are the foundation for half the pieces in this smallish overview. In every case the mattress is divorced from its function: either cast in two parts stacked on top of one another, or placed as if propped up against a wall, or set up vertically. The mattress as a site of a much assailed and private activity is decontextualized only to be reinvested with ambiguous content. In Untitled (Double Amber Bed), 1991, a mattress cast in rubber and high-density foam leans against a wall, as if seeking a state of rest. Its awkward pose causes its internal architecture to manifest itself: its surface erupts in a constellation of cascading rivulets and regular tactile protrusions, a profile rather alien to the idea of rest. The sepia tone and somewhat battered air of this piece appear to indicate that this is a mold of a mattress that has done its earthly duty, and is now inexorably invested with the memory of those who reclined and/or dallied upon it. Untitled (Yellow Bed, Two Parts), 1991, is a child’s bed, its smaller scale and stained surface evocative of both fragility and the mattress’ function as a silent record of such misfortunes as bedwetting. Cast in dental plaster, a favored medium for Whiteread, its desiccated surface is coolly wistful without being romantic, giving permanence to what would otherwise be a transitory and overlooked passage in life. The chaos of childhood, its vulnerabilities and disturbances, are captured with an almost Proustian gesture that is central to Whiteread’s thematics.

Two sculptures in this exhibition were both cast in pinkish dental plaster from the insides of hot-water bottles. Here too, the artist emphasizes the anthropological value of objects, and in this case, the resemblance to the human torso. The accoutrements of daily life are, of course, everywhere infused with human echoes, and they are regularly designed to contour themselves to our shapes and needs; Whiteread both reiterates that relationship, and suggests a parallel psychological echo, an intimation of anthropomorphism that is very absorbing and true. In a way, looking at Whiteread’s work is akin to the experience of watching an apartment building being torn down, where for fleeting moments there are glimpses into rooms totally stripped of human presence, but still imbued with human drama. The results of an inquiry such as this might be purposefully inconclusive, but are heady with possibilities.

James Yood