research point: find examples of contemporary artists who ‘revisit the art historic subject of ‘landscape’ to offer insights into today’s fast changing society’

Rachel Whiteread

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House, 1993, Rachel Whiteread (photo via Apollo Magazine)

Short on time, podcasts are becoming a great source for me. I can listen while driving, cooking, walking the dog, washing up. My husband thinks I’m daft to listen to podcasts about art, when I can’t actually see anything, but I find that I listen harder than I might if I also had the image before me. Then if something that has caught my ear, I look it up online as soon as I can. Recently I listened to Tate curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas talking about Rachel Whiteread’s drawings and when it was over I couldn’t get to a screen fast enough. Before this podcast, shamefully all I knew of Whiteread was her Untitled (House) 1993, which I had thought wonderful at the time. And now I’ve found her drawings.

Most of the drawings are not strictly ‘landscape’ though they are connected: staircases, mattresses, flooring- the interiors of the urban landscape – for Whiteread is interested in the insides and outsides of things. While her exterior images can’t really be called landscape – they are a tight crop of urban landscape – they do seem to be about the relationship of the subject to its surroundings, whether we see the surroundings or not.

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Study for Village – 1st, 2004, Rachel Whiteread (ink, pencil and collage on paper)

Whiteread collects doll’s houses. Here they line up as if on a suburban street, their innards open for the world to see. At eye-level. They are empty, like the semi-demolished and derelict buildings of her other images. Have all the other houses in this street been obliterated already, or are these the first to occupy it? Where are they – is this AnyStreet in AnyTown? A dream? A nightmare?

A lightbulb is in the foreground. This plays with our sense of perspective – are the houses a long way off, and the lightbulb to scale, or is this the true size of real bulb and a doll’s house? And why the lightbulb – universal sign that someone is at home…lights are on but no-one home? Are the lights are out for good?

(This makes me momentarily think of a small row of houses I used to pass occasionally, where the lights were never on. And yet the occupants were home, it’s just that they were blind. At the time this felt spooky to me – people were moving around in side those houses – and made me acutely aware of how reliant I was on my eyes. Now I think how differently the space within these houses was being experienced – through touch and sound).

And then of course the ghostly inked shadow above the doll’s houses. Is this the reverse? The inside-out? Are the lights on here, or is this just a facade, hiding nothing?

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Place (Village), 2006-2008, Rachel Whiteread (installation of doll’s houses)

“I didn’t think I was going to light it at first, but eventually it seemed to me that it was best to cast the spaces with light. I had wanted to make something that wasn’t sentimental, but would make children gasp when they saw it. When I first showed it at the Hayward Gallery a few years ago, it was extraordinary to stand there and listen to the noises. People often don’t make a sound when they see art, but there would be an ‘ah’, or an ‘oh’ – it was an emotional reaction, but not, I hope, in any way sentimental” Rachel Whiteread, in interview with Bice Curigar, Tate etc (magazine) Issue 20, Autumn 2010

What I find interesting in this quote is how Whiteread talks about casting the spaces with light – not lighting up the insides – but casting them. Sometimes she works with plaster, sometimes resin, sometimes light.

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House Study, Grove Road, photograph in four parts, 1992

I can’t find much information on this, though I have to assume it is preparatory drawing for House, which was indeed at 193 Grove Road.

I find it fascinating that the simple whitening out of parts of a photograph manages to do so much: creates a drawing, raises questions, makes us think. Think about the presence of houses, their footprints, the space they occupy in the landscape, the history they hold within their walls, the people who were sheltered by those walls. What remains of all this when the house is gone?

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Dog Leg Stair, 1995, Rachel Whiteread (correction fluid and ink on graph paper)

Graph paper! This was what really got me running to a screen to check out these drawings. I had been thinking about doing my Assignment 3 on graph paper when I heard that Whiteread had used it for some of her drawings. And then she uses Tippex.

Wonderful Tippex. Who hasn’t blanked out half a page of an exercise book when bored at school, and used it to draw? My kids don’t know the joy of Tippex with today’s flashy erasable pens.

Tippex seems to be the perfect choice: utterly opaque, matt, white and dry. In my own experiments white acrylic didn’t have the same opacity and wrinkled the paper with its wetness.

The combination of graph paper and Tippex is nostalgic for some of us. They speak of 1970’s math classes.

I feel that the media alone sets the tone of something past, a memory, plans, things covered up, missing. Then drawings themselves ask questions. The perspective is not quite ‘right’ on the stairs, they seem to be lifting up and towards us, and it’s not clear how the stairs relate to the box they sit in. But it is these things that make us wonder.

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Drawing for Water Tower VI, 1996 (varnish, ink and pencil)

I do seem to have a bit of a thing for this old yellow. I’ve used it in a couple of drawings so far on this course (next to charcoal), and here it is, applied I think as a varnish. It is the colour of things faded – plastic, linen, paper.

Though the description here is varnish, ink and pencil, it does look like collage in the background. The drawing was preparatory work for a casting made of the New York water tower. The tower had been made in cedar wood and the casting was made in resin.

In this simple drawing, the cedar tower becomes elegant and ethereal, it almost glows. Its function as a water tower was all of these things – an elegant solution to bring life to the city. And yet on the rooftops these towers were lost, disappearing in the urban landscape.

 

2 thoughts on “research point: find examples of contemporary artists who ‘revisit the art historic subject of ‘landscape’ to offer insights into today’s fast changing society’

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