Casting the immortal

Rachel Whiteread, a pre-eminent British sculptor, spoke last Tuesday at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. Whiteread gained international recognition in the 1990s by casting the negative space of objects as small as furniture to structures as grand as houses. While reflecting such strange proportions, the artist’s haunting quality of work also portrays her interest in memory and death. With her cast pieces, Whiteread strives to carry what she called “the residue of years and years of use.” Her casts of voids made solid, which are nostalgically evocative, prove that there is a certain appeal in nothingness turned tangible.

Her 2002 piece “Untitled (Domestic),” which was co-purchased by the Carnegie Museum of Art and Albright-Knox Museum Gallery of Buffalo, N.Y., was recently added to the Carnegie’s local collection. Although the museum temporarily housed Whiteread’s “Untitled (One Hundred Spaces)” in 1995 and owns her “Untitled (Yellow Bath)” (2002), “Untitled (Domestic)” is the first large-scale piece to arrive on the site. The piece, which is a plaster cast of a staircase in Admiral Lord Nelson’s 18th-century London town house, is starkly white, angular, and monumental. The familiar form of the stairwell is made strange by a 180-degree turn, and the effect of the sculptural reversal is disorienting. The viewer is stunned by the simultaneous beauty and simplicity of the space.

As for her lecture on Tuesday, Whiteread began with slides of her influences and early artwork. This left the attendees, mostly a mix of Carnegie Mellon students and faculty, only somewhat satisfied; they commended Whiteread’s wide array of slides, but criticized her lack of conceptual explanation. Corey Werner, a sophomore art student who recently conducted research on the artist, commented, “I was disappointed that she didn’t address the importance of the materials and the concept of her art.” Perhaps Whiteread is accustomed to speaking to audiences who are solely interested in the product, and not the process, of her work.

Although it is too late to hear her lecture, Whiteread’s work is still available at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The inverted staircase, “Untitled (Domestic),” is a perfect example of her passion: immortalizing the ephemeral.