home page link
1998 05 26 Sculpture Pills Colleen Wolstenholme 01
1998 05 26 Sculpture Pills Colleen Wolstenholme 02
1998 05 26 Sculpture Pills Colleen Wolstenholme full view
1998 05 26 Sculpture Pills Colleen Wolstenholme valium close up

Colleen Wolstenholme - Pills
May 26 1998

1998 05 26 Sculpture Pills Colleen Wolstenholme 01

Robin Peck on the Sculpture of Colleen Wolstenholme

Sculpture is scattered across the gallery flour, large plaster replicas of prescription pills. Mostly sedatives and antidepressants, they are objects with soothing, wellness-designed names: Paxil and Prozac, Valium, Xanax and Zoloft, names like strange planets, other and utopian worlds. Egyptiform, after the early modernist manner of Gaudier-Brzeska or Duchamp-Villon, the carved, white ellipses are engraved with occultish hieroglyphics, corporate pharmaceutical trademarks that are no less refined than the objects themselves, signs of ownership, allegiance and addiction. The sculpture is by turns satirical and melancholic, at once comically utopian and hopelessly pessimistic. It is a drug spill, with the sculptor cast as a troubled teen in an overfull adult medicine cabinet, the cornucopian parking lot of a successful UFO invasion fleet from planet Valium or Xanax ("I live on Xanax," brags a tranquil line-arts professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design).

This sculpture is a powerfully reasoned indictment of the collaboration between corporate pharmaceutical firms and contemporary psychiatry. It is an indictment, however, that allows for Wolstenholme's production of sculpture as an alternative healing process, a real laying on of hands - the labour of making sculpture almost endorsing a Ruskinian argument in favour of handicraft. This sculpture is made by repetitive hand labour, gendered within the discourse of traditionally female pre-capitalist domestic crafts. (Wolstenholme has also produced colourful petit-point tapestries that replicate textbook illustrations of pharmaceutical products.) There has been much care taken in the making, the care of busy and sensual if no longer loving hands. Wolstenholme is obsessed with art history, in particular with the seminal phase of early modernism, as few men can now be. In contrast to the "nothing is new" homily that terminally afflicts the conventional linear history of sculpture, she understands that there is still much work to be done, much sculpture to be made as a woman. That the history in which "everything has been done" is a history of sculpture but does not necessarily include the sculpture of history. ("I mean to notice the gendered history of labour." CW.)

Wolstenholme's earlier work consisted in part of boxed plaster casts of her own nude torso. The scent of Duchamp's Pharmacy (1914) and his porcelain Fountain (1917) lingers about the objet trouvé strategy of this art. Trouvé is used here as a method to remake Brancusi without the predictable tactics of appropriation (Sherrie Levine's copies of Brancusi's Sleeping Muse, for instance) and without admitting to the over-authenticity of reductivist essentialism. Instead, Wolstenholme makes an ironic claim for the authenticity and objectivity of her trouvé, managing to sustain a transparent conceit that it is somehow neither her fault nor her concern that the form of an antidepressant pill looks so much like a sculpture by Brancusi. Wolstenholme's sculpture looks good for some of the same reasons that Rachel Whiteread's looks good, because the particular objet trouvé, when enlarged (or topologically inverted, in Whiteread's case,) mimics the secure formal conventions of modernist (and minimalist) "good design" at the same time that it displaces us in scale, transporting us within a scale model of charged metaphors.

Sculpture is something to hold onto
The three sizes in the scale of Wolstenholme's work are first, the largest, an adult torso size, to be embraced by the arms; second, a size more head-like, to be held in the hands; and third, the glyphic size of the pharmaceutical trademark, the size of seeds and pills - to be touched by the fingers and worn as jewelry, a surrogate finger touch. (As well as making bronzes from the original plaster sculpture, Wolstenholme has produced gold and silver jewelry cast directly from prescription pills, and several pharmaceutical firms have threatened her with legal action unless she ceases this art production.)

The history of the nude female (in art), standing in as a part of the incubus of contemporary pornography, is symptomatic of how society treats women as objects. The fact that women exist in the world primarily as objects in the eyes of culture and are now increasingly coming to exist for themselves as subject creates internal conflict which creates "madness." Men use jewelry as a method of marking their territory, like the diamond necklace or the diamond ring. I thought it would be appropriate if (women) were wearing antidepressants around their necks instead of diamond solitaires. C.W.

The sculptures of the secondary, median size have the approximate size and form of pottery but are solid, recalling Brancusi's Cup (II), which he sometimes referred to as The Cup of Socrates, 1917-18 (an oak carved representation of a cup filled to the brim with poison hemlock). They recall also the cranium, drinking cups of the Central Asian tradition. On this scale the pills are busts, Brancusian eggheads, but indebted to Milarepa. As sculptures of antidepressant pills they become the mythic vessels of inexhaustible plenty, cornucopia and grail, capable of marvelous rejuvenative powers. To Hermetics and Alchemists the cup is a sign for the element of Water and the female principle, a sign of fertility and the endless renewal of life. The antidepressant pill on the scale of a vessel becomes the sublimated embodiment of the longing for the vessel of the mother. The representation of this mythologized pill as monolithic, solid sculpture is a representation of the pregnant female body as swollen belly or breast but also fetishized as phallus or rigid corpse, made deathly hard and memorial. ("In the castle of Ker Glas there are two miraculous objects. The first is a diamond lance, which destroys everything that it strikes, and the second is a golden basin, the contents of which will cure all ills." Johannes and Peter Fiebag, The Discovery of the Grail, translated by George Sassoon.)

When Wolstenholme's sculpture is the size of the human body, the representation of the pill becomes a torso, statuary distressed or historicized. ("It is not the classical statue, but the classical torso that we really love." Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, 1918.) Silent memorials to the erasure of productive anxiety, models for monuments to the victims of the treatment of depression, these are representations of the post-Prozac nude, torso without head or limbs, without mind or mobility. They are gendered by Wolstenholme's labour, but also by their smoothness, their immobility and the impressed ownership mark of the corporation (an extension of the jewelry scale and its function as the touch of ownership). These are the bodies of women dismembered by the gaze. Wolstenholme has sculpted an image of minimal selfhood that is an apotheosis of the patriarchal feminine ideal. ("In my mind, I sliced off her head to mark the highest point of my caresses, and let it roll into the abyss." Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, L’Homme couvert de femmes.)

There is an imaginary or projected fourth size on the scale. Wolstenholme's sculptures are utopian architectural models, representations of that other place where one is whole and happy again, a childhood remembered or a death imagined, yet paranoiac. They are models of both the Pantheon and the Colosseum at Rome, the Newton Cenotaph of Etienne-Louis Boullee and the Guggenheim Museum, Brancusi's Temple of Redemption for Indore and the stadiums of Albert Speer, but now all sans oculi, the all-seeing eye in the sky superseded by the corporate trademark. As religious institutions were once the sole inheritors of the imperial supra-national scale, so now the similarly omnipotent authority of contemporary corporations (and corporate, pharmaceutical psychiatry) through electronic and other media, own the scale that surrounds one as the new-built environment - the gigantic scale to which Wolstenholme proposes relatively small hand-made sculpture as an antidote.

Pills are like seeds that sprout and grow upon ingestion to enclose the self within their "architecture." Streamlined pills that were designed to be swallowed with ease are replicated by Wolstenholme as too large to swallow, problematic. The confinement of the "architecture" that they represent is seen here from the outside and with some distance, appearing as a sculptural monolith, a monument.

Torsion and the Torso
At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, cruising the Egyptian sculpture collection, Wolstenholme discovers an Egyptian libation table (MMA acc. No. 32.1.213) carved from pale limestone, an artifact of the First Intermediate Period from Lisht. This trouvé looks like a cast-plaster torso, a yoni-like representation of the female reproductive system. It is a scale model, symmetry of irrigation canals, dikes and sluices that lead to a single spout. Made for the mixing of chemicals (perhaps drugs or the ingredients of artificial stone), it recalls that the ancient Egyptians invented both plaster and pharmacology (“Egypt”, from the Greek “the land of Ptah” - literally, “the land of sculpture”, but to its ancient inhabitants “Khem”, from which the word chemistry is derived). She wants to touch the stone table but it is behind glass. Instead, she detours upstairs to touch the black and red granite Linga in the Asian collection. (Her companion distracts the guard. She has been evicted from the Guggenheim for touching the Brancusi sculpture.) On the way out of the museum, she innocently steps down into the Hallowe'en dungeons that are the Medieval Christian Halls. Here is the sculptural body denied, emaciated and tortured, a dark place illuminated by white skeletons. (In Moby Dick, Ishmael believed his fearful reaction to whiteness proved the existence of something worthy of such fear. He argued that at least one aspect of the fear of whiteness derives from "the aspect of the dead - the marble pallor lingering there." He knew because he feared - a premonition of George Bataille's intuitions of architecture.) Wolstenholme stiffens, becoming herself a fetish under the gaze of the tearful, misogynist patriarchy of Catholicism. She pauses, places tongue on teeth, to admire some ivory carvings, so like worn plaster. Some of this Christian sculpture is appealing, but even the best has only the numinous appeal of sickliness, the erotic appeal of an anorexic fashion model shopping Soho on Paxil. It corresponds to Nietzsche's vision of a morbid Christianity, a memorial sculpture that "has created for itself states of distress in order to eternalize itself." (The Anti-Christ.) The white plasterine rigidity of the corpse is necessary to Wolstenholme's sculptural critique of the patriarchy, but this can be misleading. For all its satirical melancholy, her sculpture is rather more hopeful than that, more ambitious of a bond with the impassive, hard, red granite flesh of Egyptian sculpture than with either the marble pornography of ancient Greece (she deliberately avoids the Greco-Roman Halls) or the wooden morbidity of Christian Art.

On the final block of West 22nd Street she drives between two of the prismatic basalt columns by Joseph Beuys to park her new Ford truck inside the Dia Center for the Arts building. (Wolstenholme once worked at Dia. Among her duties there she helped to remake the central plaster tangle of rat tails for Katherina Fritsch's Rattenkoenig after Fritsch declared to curatorial staff that the original bundle of tails lacked integrity. Wolstenholme's major works in plaster date from immediately after this.) She walks into the Richard Serra exhibition, Torqued Ellipses, with Jim Schaeufele, the Director of Operations. One piece has an outer wall of three steel plates and an inner wall of two, forming a broken axis entrance. (Entrances to the inner and outer passageways are placed opposite one another.) To reach the centre she must walk between walls of steel. Walking counterclockwise within the sleeve, she experiences the sensation of descent. At the lowest, most vertiginous point is the entrance to the interior. Ignoring the empty centre, she walks back, experiencing the sensation of ascent. The ellipse on the floor, the one that she follows with her feet, is twisted out of alignment with the one above her head, the ellipse that she follows with her eyes. Between the two is a vertiginous, curving, steel torsion surface that resists the gaze. Inside Serra's sculpture her torso twists with a gyroscopic alertness that quells vertigo.

She drives the Ford off the highway onto a small road and circles to the left, her body swaying complementarily to the right. Red lipstick and dark sunglasses against green hills, white patches of gypsum show through here and there. Wolstenholme thinks that she can smell the quarry, but she can't see it yet. A few kilometres more, then suddenly, and it seems about halfway around this hank of hills, is the entrance. She turns sharp left through an open gate in a steel fence, accelerating past the no-trespassing signs. It is Sunday. No one is working and there are no guards. Fast on gravel and then down an inclined Egyptiform ramp, cutting though the overburden of shale and sandstone, she is at the centre of an immense pit. It is a plaster moon crater, a gigantic Colosseum of eroded flesh-pink and ivory-coloured gypsum. There are five small, white, nearly-triangular clouds in a blue sky above the elliptical rim (Constantin Brancusi, Birds in the Sky, watercolour and gouache on paper, 1930-36). She backs the truck up to a pyramid of stone and begins to select the most alabaster-like of the loose boulders, struggling to heave them into the back. They are large and heavy. Some are the size of human torsos, others are more like heads. (According to L. Heber Cole's The Gypsum Industry in Canada, 1930, in this quarry "the rock is broken to man size," while in another nearby quarry the rock is "broken to hand sizes....") The smaller pieces are less fractured from blasting and will be better for carving. She is nervous. She quarries an ancient monument, stealing white stone, feeling the historical gaze of a thousand dead eyes. She hurries. Back in the truck cab, spraying gravel as she climbs out of the white hole, back past the quarry office and the warning signs, she now turns always to the right. The same green-and-white berm of hills, but to the right now. It is a moonlit night when she arrives in Halifax and unloads the stone at her Pier 21 studio. She has the ambition to carve stone.

Peck, Robin - C Magazine