BY Laurie Palmer in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Frances Whitehead

BY Laurie Palmer in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

In a project at Tough Gallery called 'Antechamber', Frances Whitehead played with material issues of space, cramming all the stuff from her previous Tough Gallery exhibitions - labelled boxes, support structures, glass containers and the huge ceramic modular pillars that she had laboriously crafted to fit around the gallery's wooden columns for her 1996 show 'Artemesia Absinthium' - into the tiny basement vault. (Perhaps at one point it had held meat, or money. Now its rusted and twisted metal frame is missing a door, and the brick-lined walls are crumbling.) Opposite this crypt-like room, the main exhibition space was left empty - except for a small projected rectangle of intense light extending about 12 feet from the door into the room, its precise right-angled shape and dimensions equal to the interior space of the tiny room opposite. The door-frame of the main exhibition space had also been shrunk and refashioned to mirror that of the vault, but coloured white; the Hydrocal reconstruction was cast to curve and pull away from the frame in exactly the same form as the twisted metal.

On entering the main exhibition space, my impulse was to roam around, scrutinising its odd angles, dark corners and residual industrial fixtures in a way I never had when it was full of art. The emptiness of this huge space resonated with choice, with a refusal, and with an opening. The artist's decision not to fill the space with products of her labour, with ordered materials layered with significance, but instead to lever its murky and expansive emptiness via the accumulated weight and substance of her previous work, felt like a meta-leap. The territory in which she landed, and we with her, was laced with mystical possibilities - the polarities of matter and light as substance and spirit - or with art-related issues concerning the separation of form and content, material and meaning - possibilities supported by the artist's past works. But these profundities were handled lightly, and balanced by the more practical, even brutish levels on which the work could also be read and interrogated: storage is a sculptural dilemma; is art art when it is all packed up? How did she get those corners of light so sharp?

Whitehead's title, 'Antechamber', poses the question of which room, stuffed vault or projected rectangle of electric light, precedes the other? In which do we wait before entering the other? Or do they ricochet back and forth in a perpetual deferral, never allowing entrance to an inner sanctum, keeping us on a threshold? Standing between the two, we are asked to consider relationships between context and material, and to question how art occupies, consumes, permeates space, or doesn't, and, perhaps indirectly, how these issues intersect with the economics of time and money as well as space.