Sculpture and Other Provocations: The Artful Subversions of Colleen Wolstenholme

Al Gore isn’t the only one delivering inconvenient truths. Despite the current shift of much of the art scene in the Western world toward spectacle and novelty, fuelled by a voracious market with truly staggering amounts of cash, many artists are still honing their critical barbs, cutting deeper and deeper into the walls of smug complacency that cushion us from our consciences. Social criticism may seem an odd choice in the current climate (in a market-driven milieu, who wants to bite the hand that feeds her?), but it has always played a role. The market doesn’t mind a little backtalk after all, it just makes the eventual capitulation sweeter. We think we can assimilate anything into the commercial gallery/collector /museum nexus; that much, at least, has been clear since the canonization of Duchamp’s Readymades, never mind the 80 years since, of more and more outrageous attempts to find something, anything, that the maw of the art market will choke on, maybe even spit back out. No, our teeth grind fine, and there has been little we can’t digest. Still, there is gristle to be found in our steak.

We in the urban West need outsiders, with their inconvenient stabs and darts that bite deeper than our own ineffectual pricks of conscience. We want them, these outsiders, yes, but packageable, ironic and otherwise coded so as to let us be on the right side of the issue. We need to make ourselves feel comfortable with such work, to pull its sting, at least insofar as it threatens to prick us.

If we can’t get comfortable, then we tend to make less of the work. Can an artist pick a surer path to obscurity than to persist, Ahab-like, in refusing to let us readily assimilate them into the system? In throwing those darts, an artist risks Ahab’s fate, that of becoming inextricably tangled in their issue and submerged under its very weight. It’s easy to think we already know what such an artist has to say, that we’ve heard it or seen it all before.

Colleen Wolstenholme’s studio is in Hantsport, a small town on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy coast, about an hour’s drive from Halifax. Wolstenholme has been living there for the past eight years. A graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the State University of New York at New Paltz, Wolstenholme followed the art graduate’s familiar path to New York, living there for several years until moving to Vancouver. It was while living on the west coast that she received her first brush with art-world celebrity. Always an artist with a hybrid practice, Wolstenholme then, and still, worked in sculpture and jewellery, with the techniques and histories of each media cross-pollinating the other in her practice. In the mid-1990s, Wolstenholme began casting anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, such as Zoloft, Paxil, Valium and Dexedrine, in sterling silver. These were made into pendants, earrings and bracelets, bringing what she saw as the increasing, though secretive, use of such medications among her female friends and acquaintances to the fore. The pill jewellery served, as one wearer was quoted as saying, as a kind of badge of honour. That the wearer was the musician Sarah McLachlan attracted a spate of welcome mainstream media attention to Wolstenholme and her work, as well as a series of very unwelcome letters from law firms ordering her to cease and desist in her use of trademarked imagery. Newspapers in London, Los Angeles, New York and other major cities featured articles about prescription drug dependency, its statistical weighting towards women, and the various cultural responses to the phenomenon, particularly Wolstenholme’s aggressive, highly critical work. Threats of lawsuits and other legal actions from large multi-nationals gave her work a certain outlaw credibility–though it was a stressful time for the artist. (See Issue 102 to read the full article.)