Acclaimed for her plaster casts of everything from bathtubs to bedrooms to buildings, Rachel Whiteread depicts the unseen and the absent and the unspoken. Her work exemplifies a sculptural reversal in which the object depicted speaks less about its own presence than of the ghosts of objects no longer present. Untitled (2004), from her series of cast bookshelves begun in the late 1990s, is the epitome of her ability to capture the transience of objects through their absence.
Her approach to sculpture evokes parallels to Bruce Nauman who also explored the idea of negative space, namely in his A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1965-66). Indeed, Nauman's 1986 exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery was a catalyst for Whiteread, an art student challenging the boundaries between exterior and interior spaces by casting second-hand domestic objects in plaster, rubber or resin. Whiteread's material fossilized the object's history by taking an impression of the original surface whose indentations and details invited contemplation of the missing object. She progressed to a grander scale with Ghost (1990) in which she cast an entire living space in white plaster. The life once lived in the interior of the room is evident from traces of wallpaper and specks of colored paint embedded in the plaster, documenting the shape of the room while noting that which no longer remained.
Untitled is a negative cast of three bookshelves whose colorful indentations of varying length and texture suggest the lost presence of a library. The plaster captures the nuance of paper edges and color dyes of each book as Whiteread reminds us of the literary treasures once held by the absent shelves. Her allusions to the different sizes and colors of the books pay tribute to the individuality of their creators and their distinctive lives, styles and stories. The books and the authors are honored as ghosts on Whiteread's empty shelves. Untitled electrifies the hollow space contained within the materiality of the lost shelves and vivifies its silence, its history and its unconscious.
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