Rachel Whiteread’s new exhibition at Gagosian Beverly Hills may not be what I expected, but it’s a rather cool offering from the Brit sculptor. Best known for her castings of negative spaces that recreate the forms of domiciles, utilitarian constructs, and other large industrial forms, this show seems at odds with the scale and weight of those famous earlier works.
In this show are small groupings laid sparely across the large galleries of the spartan blue-chip cavern. Whiteread has gotten chummy with poster tubes, soap and cereal boxes, and other everyday containers of the mundane. Furthermore, she has constructed a lot of them quite curiously, tightly lined up in the rusted arms and legs of overturned metal chairs, for example. Not the most succinct statements, these minor collections conjure up who-knows-what, and I am still at a loss to get a read on them. As sculptural elements or mini-installations, they do look nice.
Pastels, pinks, yellows, lavenders, and creams shroud these shapes, most becoming cute and girly candy-like party favors. More than wanting to touch them, I wanted to smell them. The gallery has installed several shelves and a long banquet that these groupings lie on, displaying them as in a vacuous abstract supermarket. In the back gallery are drawings and paintings using pencil-ruled paper with cutouts of cups, glasses, and other household vessels, as if to comment on domestic entertainment and conspicuous consumption. Maybe. Gagosian is no didactic playground, and the learning curve is like a roller coaster; if you are not in the know (or not a celebrity), you’d better be wearing some expensive shoes or carrying a serious handbag.
Whiteread is no colorist; she claims to be confused by it. The hues drawn forth by these pieces, however, proclaim a chic and clever ownership of the large spaces they inhabit. The palette vibrates in a subtle hum that pulls the work down into the floors and walls, as opposed to confronting the viewer. The only problem with them is that the proprietary power is too cool — too quiet and light. If you remember Nancy Rubins’s mangled airplane show reception that was cancelled right after 9/11, you know the gallery has no problem with work that bombards the viewer and dominates the space.
While it is a compelling shift — given the artist has been concentrating on smaller work for years now — there remains a void to be filled in this show. While the upstairs gallery houses more proportional and successful solutions, they reverse the effect of hammering home the point of mounting an exhibition of an important artist to begin with. The dollhouse domiciles of the upper space easily outweigh the ephemeral abstractions of the work down in the main gallery, and I can only offer that there must have been some concern regarding access, viewer proximity, and security that drove this curatorial decision. No tape barriers or velvet rope here. I did not attend the reception, but knowing them well, there must have been very heavy security all over the place, as evidenced by the lone suit that shadowed me all over the building on the day I visited. Not the most enjoyable experience.
This brings up the inevitable question about where Whiteread’s work dwells in the scheme of things. Objects…on supermarket shelves…in the main space…at Gagosian? Poster tubes, solvent cans, grain boxes? While it is one thing to honor the free spirit of the artist, it’s another to cave in to unleashed folly and unfettered freedom in what should be a careful and deliberate production in an otherwise self-described pantheon of high-brow art. The impression becoming the object, the route by which the negative becomes the positive is the very foundation that this work rests upon. Unweighting it and deifying its strength within the context of dubious framework zaps the power and effect, and while her work is cerebral, it still demands scale and conscious proportion, not unlike the work of Robert Thierren — another Gagosian artist recently shown at Chelsea. His work is all about scale, minimal incongruity, disproportion, and all the fun that it evokes. That element is lost here, and the pointed seriousness and inherent confusion becomes prominent. Exploring the interstitial nature of Whiteread’s objects gives a curator a lot of choices. That can be problematic, however, when the wrong ones are made.
Top Image: Fell. Plaster, pigment, resin, and bronze
7 x 55 1/4 x 26 3/4 inches (17.5 x 140 x 68 cm)