Colette Whiten

Colette Whiten’s needlepoints are based on tiny images taken from newspapers, images that play on the reader’s sense of helplessness in the face of distant events. In this show, she exhibited four new images along with the graphs she used to painstakingly transfer the newsprint images to needlepoint. In Mob Attacks Somali Woman, 1993–94, the fear on the woman’s face and the ambiguous expressions of the men surrounding her are doubly frozen—in the arbitrary closing of the camera’s shutter and in the permanence of Whiten’s handiwork. These needleworks, despite their precious size, are striking in their mimetism. It was surprising to be able to recognize the doughy face of serial killer Arthur Shawcross from a cluster of about 20 stitches in varying shades of gray.

The gray matrix of cross-stitches has a digital effect that replicates the newspaper’s half-tones as well as a pixelated screen. At the same time, it underscores the difference between Hobbs’ painstaking manual labor and the abstracting process of mechanical reproduction. Her meditation upon horrific scenes in the form of repetitive stitching serves, like the act of saying a rosary, as a kind of redemption not only for the people imaged in the scenes but for numbed newspaper readers.

Whiten takes pride in her handiwork, which is evident in the pieces that document her process. These consist of a scroll of graph paper inscribed with marks that represent different shades of gray, suspended in a Plexiglas tube. To view portions of the image, the viewer must adjust a rather ostentatious looking magnifying glass—a kind of looking (one based on ascertaining the originality and quality of a work) that is, of course, diametrically opposed to the glance normally accorded reproducible newspaper images. By making newspaper images the object of her labor, labor of a particularly ritualistic sort, it is as if Whiten wishes to willfully restore originality and uniqueness to them. Through her work they gain, or regain, the aura of individuality, though it remains ambiguous whether this aura pertains to the person of the beaten Somali woman, the dedicated Canadian artist, or some space created between them. Given the sacramental quality of Hobbs’ needlework, the structures in which these pieces were exhibited—a pair of cast-bronze arms, frozen in the act of hand wringing or supplication and suspended above the tall, deep-green alcove that held each image—seemed redundant.

Comparing Whiten’s work to that of other artists who commit media images with meticulous craft to silk and muslin demonstrates that there is a great variety of expression within in this minigenre. Niki Moser’s and Kim Ponick’s embroidered scenes of the Gulf War, Cover-Up Quilt, 1991, worked in color in a relatively quick, rough satin stitch, possess an urgency absent from Whiten’s embroideries. Hers is the deliberate gesture of one for whom the precision of the ritual is paramount.

Laura U. Marks