The AGNS recently received a sculpture - Shrouded Figure
- by Hantsport, Nova Scotia-based artist Colleen Wolstenholme. This object depicts a figure in a burqa, but it does not represent a specific personage. Its scale, ¾ of life-size, is derived from a version of Sharia law which assigns a value of ¾ that of a man to a woman. The sculpture’s presence is hard to ignore; Wolstenholme has managed to create a form upon which the viewer can’t help but project notions of quietude, dignity, and other notions. The content of the piece, though, is not the figure of a woman, but rather the systems that control women – the shroud not the figure.
Western art history is replete with veils and shrouds of course, and not only in Orientalist imaginings of odalisques and harem girls. Greek sculpture used drapery almost exclusively for female figures, for instance. In contrast, male figures were usually nude. In Renaissance sculpture the use of drapery to portray emotional states achieved is apotheosis – particularly in two sculptures: Michelangelo’s Pieta
and Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa
. The Pieta
is an interesting parallel to Wolstenholme’s Shrouded Figure
. In it, the figure of Mary is out of proportion to the figure of the dead Christ: Michelangelo scaled her up to heighten the imagistic power of the composition – her increase in scale reflects the importance of her image as the Mother of God. The drapery of her robes create a stable base upon which the near-nude figure of Christ is supported, Mary, as the symbol of the Church, is a rock – a stable, supportive figure. In Bernini’s ecstatic figure, on the contrary, the drapery seems to writhe like a living thing.
If Bernini’s marble is molten, Wolstenholme’s cement is turgid, solid in a somehow more than expected way. Carrara marble is beautiful and exotic, while concrete is banal. Wolstenholme has not resorted to heightening the material’s expressive potential (cement, like any material, can be turned by a sculptor into something quite nearly magical, as Wolstenholme herself has achieved in other works), but instead has left it rough and drab. This is no robe reflective of a “storm surge of sensation,” but rather the rough hair shirt of the penitent. The material, the image and the content are all turned in one direction, towards the picture that the artist wishes us to perceive. Shrouded Figure
is the one of only two cast cement works by this artist, and is a companion piece to her series of small, painted figures that have been exhibited widely in Canada. Contemporary figurative sculpture is relatively rare in Canada, aside from such established figures as Joe Fafard
and Evan Penney, and Wolstenholme, along with younger artists such as Shary Boyle
, Sara Anne Johnson
, and Graeme Patterson
, are redefining the way that the figure is used in Canadian sculpture. It is a mature work by one of this region’s, and this country’s, most accomplished sculptors.
Ray Cronin, Director and CEO