Visual Extras: Rachel Whiteread and SOIL in Residence

In “The 2010 Film Issue” of The Believer, Alex Rose writes on the bonus disc phenomenon and the impact of its philosophy on contemporary culture. The bonus disc is the information excess and readily available obscurity necessary to sell films to the mainstream in a digital age: the behind-the-scenes explanations, outtakes, extended interviews and director’s commentary. Rose argues that many of the pleasures of experiencing these once unattainable features are lost in the present level of media saturation:

“Call it the paradox of accessibility: as more and more shadowy items are brought to light, the allure of their obscurity and uniqueness is compromised.” (Alex Rose, “Bonus Disc Fever,” The Believer March/April 2010)

The bonus feature seems as though it should elicit a sense wonder because it represents something we have never seen; it has the potential to be the filmic equivalent of the stuffed dodo, the hidden crawl space, the original, handwritten manuscript.  Yet, as Rose concludes, typically DVD extras do not equal any of these; rather, most are ancillary distractions from the original film.

There are both successful and unsuccessful “extras” in the visual arts as well. In light of Rose’s essay, Rachel Whiteread Drawings at the Hammer Museum struck me as the behind-the-scenes category of bonus materials, largely due to the exhibition text’s likening of the drawings to the artist’s diary. The galleries were neatly separated by fixture or furniture element: one room for floors, one room for light switches and door knobs, one room for the mattress. Within each space the featured element was represented by one sculpture, the remainder of the room filled with drawings of the same form that utilized graph paper, correction fluid and other materials referencing the drafting process. Yet, the drawings appeared almost flawless, the perfection of the handwriting and preciseness of the painted whiteout avoiding any question of whether they represented discarded versions of Whiteread’s sculptural works; the drawings appeared to be independent works on paper, not the sketches or drafts one would expect to find in a diary.

Rachel Whiteread. Correction fluid, ink and watercolor on graph paper. 17 7/8 x 12 in. (45.6 x 30.4 cm). Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Image from hammer.ucla.edu

As the exhibition text noted, the drawings were, in fact, produced independently of the sculptures. There is nothing wrong or unusual about an artist creating two related bodies of work simultaneously.  However, the almost-perfect drawings on view at the Hammer offered limited insight into Whiteread’s creative practice and conceptual frameworks, and I had hoped to find a revealing of process through the prominent artist’s lesser known works.  The drawings had their own beautiful qualities, but when displayed beside the artist’s sculptures, they appeared insubstantial rather than supportive or in rich dialogue with the better, three-dimensional works. Much like the lackluster DVD extra, the drawings also did not provide the uniqueness or obscurity I was seeking.

It was easy enough to meander through room after room, admiring the drawings as beautiful objects,  but suddenly, at the end of the exhibition resided several vitrines of collaged postcards and curious objects for which the preceding galleries provided little expectation. After the relative monotony of drawings and sculptures formatted almost identically within the previous rooms, the messy magazine cutouts and obscure remnants of ordinary life (shoe horns, dollhouse furniture, glass orbs and so much more) were unexpected, feeling like extras among this exhibition of extras, except the vitrine contents were what I had searched for the entire time. Here, among the manipulated photographs of houses and various collections of glass bottles and plaster jaw molds, one could start to reconsider the concepts, ideas and forms that came together to create the sculptures for which the artist is best known. The obscure contents of the collages and vitrine objects do not add up cleanly to create the sampling of works highlighted in the remainder of the galleries; this is precisely why these objects were fascinating.

Rachel Whiteread. Vitrine Objects. Dimensions and Media variable. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mike Bruce. Image from hammer.ucla.edu

Weeks after seeing Rachel Whiteread Drawings, my encounter with SOIL in Residence brought Rose’s article to mind again, except this exhibition struck me more as the “extended scenes” bonus feature. Expanding beyond the confines of the main SOIL space, SOIL in Residence is located in the large, luxurious Suite 288 of the Seattle Design Center. The SOIL gallery in Pioneer Square is fairly standard for the neighborhood: a narrow, white cube with a small backspace, only slightly larger than the size of a single apartment in Seattle. It typically features one or two individual artists or small group shows. In contrast, SOIL in Residence includes the works of all twenty-four artists from the collective.   The exhibition occupies 11,000 square feet of a showcase space in the Design Center, the “gallery” complete with commercial fixtures such as mirrors mounted to the walls, design sample drawers, and assorted windows details scattered throughout the massive room.

SOIL in Residence installation view, Pacific Design Center; photo by Joey Veltkamp

There is something to be said for the limitations imposed by a small space, particularly in terms of focus, presentation and selectivity; SOIL’s main space is effective in all of these regards. Yet, the “extended version” on view at the Design Center provides a different understanding of SOIL itself.  DVD extras often have an arbitrary quality when viewed in light of the final film, hence their omittance in the first place. However, knowing that a scene was ultimately cut from a feature does not discourage our interest; the prospect of the unseen provokes curiosity and intrigue. The DVD extra fails when it does not fulfill the promise of adding something new to our perspective of the film without distracting from the completeness of the original cut.

SOIL in Residence does not merely succeed as an extra because it is a solid exhibition of its members’ works that compliments the original SOIL. The way these works of art are installed in the strange showcase creates a synergy that could not be found in a gallery or any other conventional art setting. Nicholas Nyland’s Mother admires its own vibrancy through a mirrored wall as its details and complexities are highlighted through the inversion of its shape. The bed portion of Jennifer Zwick’s Bed Dress speaks directly with the fixtures of its surroundings, the luminous fabric accented by the home-friendly lighting levels designed to push furniture sales through this space.

The Design Center as a contemporary art space is obscure and unique, but the installation of SOIL in Residence would make one think otherwise; it is tempting to believe the exhibition was someone’s genius idea years in the making, rather than the product of available space during a moment of economic free fall.  It is, in this sense, the elusive ideal extra: an offshoot of an original, yet perfectly satisfying as an independent experience.