Rachel Whiteread and space.

Having been very interested in Anthony Boswell’s paintings (See attached, and blog ‘Beyond Painting – The Dream of Arcadia’), I’ve come to the conclusion that my fascination here stems from his work seeming to paint the space of the rooms he explores, rather than the subject matter of walls, windows, doors as such. It led me to reconsidering one of those artists whose work initially inspired me in a way that only modern art can. The artist is Rachel Whiteread and the work in question was ‘Table’ (‘Table and Chair’, a latter variant, is attached). This work originally astounded me because of what it seemed to do: it took a space that we have possibly never seem foregrounded in art before (and certainly not in sculpture) – that is, the space underneath a table and chair – casts that space (in plaster or resin) and puts this ‘space’ on show. It only takes a little reflection to see what is happening here. Historically, the ‘spaces’ represented in art are hierarchical in value – the spaces that sculptures take up are filled by religious figures or by figures that are chosen for their higher value, social or otherwise. It is a form of subjective and spatial discrimination that proposes that only ‘special’ or ‘significant objects or subjects are to be the content of art. Whiteread breaks all these received ‘rules’ – her subject is a space that is utilitarian, of little aesthetic value and one that is, in the hierarchy of value, pure functionality. In casting it, she carries this issue further. The cast itself is literally of the space (not the table or stool), and when taken out the art object comes to fulfil a traditional function of art as representation (it moves from BEING the space to representing it). This is a breathtaking artistic trick, but a significant one: Whiteread has moved away entirely from hierarchies of artistic meaning, as represented by traditional subjects and even artistic motives for artistic practice. A new appreciation of form is born as well as a new sense of what we do as artists when we CHOOSE forms and subjects.

A later ‘Tables (nine tables)’ adds to all this. Here a mass produced table, such as might be in a college examination room, has the space below it cast as a multiple, pushing further the anonymous nature of the subject of the work (an anonymous mass-produced space under an anonymous mass-produced table in an anonymous setting).

Conclusions? Not sure. It intrigues me that modern art has this interest in space itself, and has made space a subject of art. I have written before about the foregrounding of the materials of art practice (stone; paint, etc) in modern art. Here, in Whiteread, space itself is given a status that can only come from the abandonment of art as narrative, as illustration, and perhaps also, primarily, comes from an age that has focussed away from the human and given a new status to the objective reality of the material world. Space is a dimension now, not just a context for human action or drama. This ‘objectivity’ seems to have found its way into today’s art.

A kind of visual ‘democracy’ also seems to be present. We no longer seems to be able to arrange things in a hierarchy of value. Nothing is of greater value than anything else (and when we choose anything to be of special value it only goes to prove our subjectivity). A space under a table? It took the 20th century to shatter our belief in what everything from medieval religious art to Manet allowed us to do. This all reminds me of Matisse, of those complex painted interiors in which no object, or feature, has any more value than any other object or feature.