Monday, 20 July 2015

Rachel Whiteread: disappearing act

 

At the time that Rachel Whiteread's sculpture was in position on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, a shockingly stupid remark (repeated by people who should have known better) was doing the rounds that it resembled the famous design of a polar bear on an iceberg for Fox's Glacier Mints. Better informed people would have known that this design was by another sculptor, the British artist Elsie Henderson, who also made colour woodcuts of animal subjects in the 1930s.

                                                                           

For a long time I have thought there was a subtle and intriguing relationship between sculpture and printmaking. It would be easy enough to make lists and just as easy to start talking in an abstract fashion about art but nevertheless I think it's worth saying - and, also, it surprises me that Whiteread herself has made so few prints. Interestingly, Eric Gill, both carver and printmaker, began his professional life as a monumental mason. Like relief prints, cutting letters in stone works not because something is there but because it isn't. Gill also once said he was interested in 'interstices' and I don't think you have to look hard at Whiteread's sublime New York sculpture, above, surrounded by roof-top water tanks, to see what she and Gill might have in common. It's not just physical intersection that interests her, ideas are always there. She is too poetic to be merely conceptual and too referential. It is not just a matter of 'only connect' with Whiteread  but it helps. Being ignorant certainly doesn't.

                                                                              


There is so much in poetic alliance in Whiteread's work: light, memory, thought, loss. Viewed properly she connects us up in all kinds of ways and at her easiest to understand (as the photograph of Trafalgar Square makes plain), her sculpture directs us back to our own environment, physical and then mental, by filling empty spaces. This was why she was always the perfect sculptor for the unused fourth plinth.

 
 
 

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