Representing Women: Colleen Wolstenholme’s "Triad"
Nova Scotia sculptor Colleen Wolstenholme has steeped herself in the history of European sculpture – whether modernist, classical or ancient – in order to deflect the distorting lens of the patriarchal view that has dominated art across centuries and its attendant attempts at control of women’s bodies. Her interest is in exposing the forms of coercion that limit women’s possibilities and circumscribe their potential for action. Hers is a feminist practice, and in Wolstenholme’s hands, sculpture, the art of the object, becomes a powerful means of countering the objectification of women.
Created in 2005 and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 2012, Wolstenholme's installation sculpture Triad succinctly embodies her critical approach. Three identical freestanding figures stand, facing in three different directions. This configuration is a familiar trope from European art history, both in sculpture and painting, where multiple figures allowed (mostly male) artists to show all sides of the female form, revealing all parts of the female body to the (mostly) male gaze. Shown nude or lightly clad, the bodies are left open to the gaze. Where clad, the play of drapery enhances the sensuousness of the forms, caressing the depicted body as do the eyes.
Wolstenholme's three “Graces” create a stark contrast to this long tradition by revealing nothing of the female form. Instead, they are shrouded head-to-toe in white burqas, featureless and static. Despite being rendered at 3/4 life-size (an allusion to a provision the artist found in various iterations of Islamic law equating the relative value of a woman to a man), these figures project a massive presence, seemingly expanding to fill the room. Their shrouds are armour, confining and protective at once.
In This and That (2003), a work from a related series, Wolstenholme depicted nuns in habits, a mode of dress not dissimilar to the burqa. It shows two figures side by side – a burqa clad-woman (the same figure as in Triad) and a nun in full habit. These small figures (approximately the size of the familiar Royal Doulton figurines found in so many Canadian households) are displayed on a wall-mounted shelf. Support and figures are all painted with the same camouflage pattern. Other works look at Western examples of proscribed attire for women: Dazzled, from the same year, features a figure in a 1920s-style “flapper” dress, ship-shaped and patterned with the same stripes on the support shelf – derived from World War I naval “dazzle” camouflage. Tight End features a full-skirted Victorian matron, in this case painted all over in a camouflage pattern derived from NFL team logos. Shrouds come in many forms.
Sugar and Spice, also in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, was inspired in part by this series of work. As the artist says, “Working with pattern came about due to the logo-based camouflage painting and I think that sort of led to Sugar and Spice.” Wolstenholme is also a jeweller and that practice has informed her larger sculptural works such as Sugar and Spice – “that piece is also like the jewellery, about casting. I am a materialist when it comes down to it.”
In part, Triad is also the artist’s response to a documentary by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) about a Taliban-sanctioned public execution of three Afghan women in 2001. That Wolstenholme then conflates that historical tragedy with the art-historical convention of the “Three Graces” and the three views of the female form is reflective of her conceptual strategy. As NGC Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Josée Drouin-Brisebois notes, “The irony here, of course, is that no part of the female body is exposed in these works. Swathed in their pale burqas, the anonymous, ghost-like women are frozen in mid-step and are both reminders of the original event and cyphers for much larger implications. Wolstenholme … sees the practice of veiling women on one hand, and their over-sexualization in Western popular culture on the other, as two sides to the same coin.”
It is these larger implications that imbue this work with such power and poignancy. Like a Madonna depicted in Western art history, the women of Triad are armoured. Not by divinity and virginity, but by anonymity. Optimistic and critical, beautiful and severe, Triad harks back to the origins of classical sculpture in Egypt, and in its insistent criticality, posits a new way to depict women in sculpture.
Her latest work is based on neurons, grids made from steel and using light sequences to evoke a sense of flowing water. “To me steel is more conducive to grids and this is what I needed to make Hexography,” she said, but her practice is never just about one single thing. “I haven't completely abandoned figuration or images of women really,” she says, and has several projects underway that continue her exploration of how women are depicted in Western visual culture.
In thinking back on Triad she sees it as wholly related to her ongoing engagement with history. “The image of the shrouded female creates a tension between various layers of identity and anonymity. It is an abstraction of gender that speaks to iconoclasm in a way that relates it directly to women,” she comments. “This content is reflective of the overall subjugation of women in all cultures.”
For details of works by Colleen Wolstenholme in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.