Text by Sarah Wilkinson

Colleen Wolstenholme’s work has the ability to engage and provoke viewers by piquing the social conscious. She’s a prolific artist with of an impressive oeuvre of intriguing art works ranging in mediums including jewellery, painting, sculpture, embroidery and digital collage. She is perhaps most well known for her jewellery and oversized plaster cast sculptures of pharmaceutical drugs.

Her 2003 work entitled Spill commands attention both because the plaster casts are large (19″ x 12″ x 9″) and because the artist utilizes recognizable forms. Their sheer size addresses the stigma attached to anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. Narcotics are omnipresent within contemporary society, and are a politically charged topic, a fact the artist makes no bones about. In Spill, the pills first appear minimalist, however upon further inspection one is able to discern otherwise. Each piece is imbued with the personal act of labour. It is easily recognizable in the way each curve and shape is painstakingly rendered with such attention to detail. These works challenge the way that drug companies market pills to solve everything while side effects often leave their consumers numb and emotionally inept.

In the past, Wolstenholme has been ordered, by law firms representing pharmaceutical companies, to cease producing these works due to trademark infringement. However there appears to be a larger issue at stake than design appropriation. Wolstenholme is an artist who is treading into a territory that is thought to be exclusively for the scientific elite. These attempts to regulate her work can be seen as evidence of its powerful effect. By offering up larger than life pills to her viewers, she is forcing the viewer to contemplate the pills’ substance before swallowing. This tactic is sure to elicit a provocative dialogue about the way in which these pills are so readily available, and perhaps more importantly, how these pills are being prescribed at disproportionate rates to women, a fact that may allude to the dominant structures’ desire to suppress and numb women in today’s society.

The oppression and subjugation of women by culture, religion and state is an underlying concern in all of Wolstenholme’s works. This underlying power structure is often dictated by men. This male dominance still exists even in the so-called post-feminist era. This and That (2003) juxtaposes the figures of a nun and a woman in a burqa. These particular miniature casts illustrate fashion’s contribution to the oppression of women. It remarks on concealment in society which results in a suppression of the individual for the sakes of the collective identity. The artist utilizes camouflage to allude to this type of societal concealment rather than disguise it.

Wolstenholme’s works are a tangible and non-apologetic thrust of relevant social issues from behind a veil. This veil of secrecy operates on a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ basis. Not only is this artist telling all, but she opens up a dialogue and encourages everyone to participate.