Colette Whiten

Carmen Lamanna Gallery

Colette Whiten’s new work investigates the colluded relationship between political power and the media. All eight pieces shown here rely on wire-service photos for their stock imagery. The heroic codes submerged in these images are underscored to construct a critique of photojournalism as a latter-day style of court painting. All this is familiar territory in appropriation art, but Whiten goes one step further in signaling a cool, wary detachment from her subject. She leaves behind the photographic realm entirely: her photos are worked out in elaborate cross-stitch needlepoint.

Whiten’s is a wonderful distancing device. It causes technologies to collide: on the one hand, there are references to big leaders and big media—the tight gray grid of the needlepoints actually looks like a crude Fax image—while on the other, there are references to an age-old domestic art. The patience, planning, and intricate labor of the needlepoint makes monkeys out of the images. Never have they seemed so otherworldly. The histrionic poses of the men and the quick iconification of things like Mikhail Gorbachev’s fedora, Brian Mulroney’s chin, and Wojcieck Jarulzelski’s dark glasses register as stock actions and props. The images are coded for “leadership,” but the leaders come out looking like puppets and stick men.

Appropriation has become an important feminist art form. Its challenge to the imaging of the real has always been an attempt to construct a more egalitarian basis for representation. Whiten’s work is significant for bringing the argument home. There is no mistaking the “maleness" on display in these images. Each piece is suspended by magnets from a 4-by-8-foot sheet of cold-rolled steel propped up against the wall. The framing of the needlepoints turns them into sculpture. They are incorporated into large, looming presences that dominate the space, yet that feel vaguely ridiculous, as if the puppets and stick men were companioned by clowns and buffoons.

With needlepoint (even the technique’s name carries a double charge), Whiten has resurrected the moral virtues associated with feminine domestic art in a way that doesn’t patronize the idea of a women’s art or play on nostalgic associations. The mood here is absolutely contemporary. There is sullen urgency in the way Whiten defines the male power ensconced in the wire photos. She strands it, elaborates its exclusiveness, establishes a judgemental framework. All the usual assumptions of significance are stood on their heads with this shift in point of view. References in the titles to actual headlines—Mulroney (U.S. Won’t Block Subs Plan), 1988; John Turner (Turner Unmoved By Survey Backing Leadership Review),1988;Gen. Wojcieck Jarulzelski (Poland’s Government Steps Down), 1988–89—open up an awareness of realities beyond the image, beyond the leader. The work defines this separate space. Its sculptural presence is a challenge to the dominance of photographic information. Implicit in the work’s media critique is a larger critique of photography’s role in circumscribing our definition of the real. Whiten opens this up as yet another political arena in need of cool-headed survey.

Richard Rhodes