Exhibition Review: Park City
Threads on the Margins
Erin Coleman’s stains and stitches at The Gallery at Library Square
Long ago relegated to the domestic sphere, embroidery is often seen as a decidedly feminine form of labor. Which is why, taking a renewed interest in practices such as textile work and ceramics, feminist art sought to question society’s often demeaning classifications of such mediums as ”women’s work.“ Salt Lake City artist Erin Coleman has been experimenting with embroidery, as well as mixed media and printmaking for much of her career. A Midwest transplant, she has amassed a reputation as one of the state’s most distinctive printmakers, evidenced in her current exhibit at The Gallery at Library Square. In the Distance from Here to my Heart encompasses nearly three years of work, ranging in style, subject and process, all of it exploring the powerful experience of womanhood.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors first encounter a small grouping of eight monoprints on cotton muslin with embroidered quotes from the 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the fictional story details the isolation of its female protagonist, whose postpartum depression becomes the catalyst for her retreat to an abandoned mansion. The perils of isolation inspire a series of hallucinations in which the protagonist sees figures in her room’s intricate yellow wallpaper. In two rows of eight, Coleman’s prints lie flat upon their surface. Each print is housed on a wrinkled piece of unpolished cotton. The rectangular pieces with frayed edges take on a decidedly intimate quality, as though they were once used as women’s handkerchiefs. The thickly stamped body of each print serves as a backdrop for embroidered passages, sewn delicately onto the surface. Dominated by a complementary yellow and green palette, the prints are hauntingly evocative of the wallpaper that causes Perkins Gilman’s character much peril.
Since the story’s 1892 release, Perkins Gilman has been lauded as a feminist icon, detailing the horrible injustices of gender discrimination within the medical and social mores of her era. Coleman has read the story several times and has returned to it often. “This story has always intrigued me as an early feminist narrative but it became meaningful to me as I was going through a big life-transition, she says.”
Indeed, these prints are beautiful contradictions: juxtaposing printmaking’s coarse mark-making with the delicate and laborious embroidery. The detailed attention necessary for embroidery evokes the near-obsessive quest of Gilman’s protagonist to pore over the wallpaper and discover a woman lurking beneath the wall. Coleman’s fascination with textiles coupled with Perkins Gilman’s powerful feminist commentary demonstrates the perils of domesticity as a form of incarceration.
“Many of the embroidered quotes are about her illness, crying all of the time, being treated like a child, trying to free this woman [herself] from the wallpaper. She becomes frenzied. She is fighting for her own validation, for her own health, for her life,” Coleman says.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Coleman devises groupings organized by color and series. On an exterior wall, a series of six monoprints incorporate ink and foil on cotton muslin. The largest of the collection is “Between,” a rich abstraction that experiments with color, texture and space. Like many of Coleman’s works, “Between” reminds one of the enigmatic sand paintings made famous by the Surrealists. These works exude an almost psychic force through the use of “automatism,” whereby the artist attempts to use unconscious forces to guide the artistic process. Coleman’s art is simultaneously delicate and bold, toying at any given moment between gentle innocence on the one hand, and a complicated turbulence on the other.
In the Distance from Here to my Heart is a plush visual experience. The collection manages to be both technically and emotionally rich, exuding themes of love, loss and hope. Remarkably, save for a few figural depictions, such intense emotional connotations are conveyed through texture, stains, stamps and embroidery. In a most subversive way, the show tackles the uniquely powerful experience of womanhood.
Coleman considers herself a feminist artist, whose artistic practice owes much to the female innovators who came before her. For her, embroidery transcends aesthetics to become a powerful statement in its own right. “Stitching on unconventional or humble surfaces, incorporating embroidered text, raveling and unraveling thread, making knots–all of these methods are so potent,” she says. “They are tiny subversive acts; they are personal and political acts that tell a story. At the heart of Feminism is the recognition that we validate each other as human beings when we allow a person’s voice to be heard and seen.
“What could be more evident of the element of the hand — that intimate creation — than an artwork that has been stitched, touched by hands over and over, pierced by delicate needles and fed tiny strands of thread? The strongest part of a thread is the knot, and through the slimmest, tiniest of means, we can create a structure by those knots and it is even more meaningful to me to take the unraveled thread from a piece of fabric and stitch those threads back into the structure. As a political metaphor, we can take those threads on margins and bring them back into the center. “
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Between Where I Was and Here
Clinton Whiting’s Home!/? explores the emotional dynamics of foster care
Our attention was riveted first by the election. Then, the transition. And now by the new administration. Political engagement in America seems to be surging, with people from both sides of the political spectrum taking to the streets. One wonders, though, if that energy will be turned into more civic and social engagement as well. If we should learn anything from the upheavals in the world today, it may be that relying on political leaders to solve our problems is never enough.
Civic engagement is a concern for Clinton Whiting, something he has been wrestling with as an artist. “I have been searching for a way to combine my ideas and humanitarian inclinations with my artistic process,” he says, “and to do so in a meaningful way that reaches beyond the surface.” The Holladay artist, who works as the gallery director at the Visual Arts Institute in Salt Lake City, holds a BFA from the University of Utah and an MFA from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma; but he has had to solve the dilemma of artistic practice and social engagement on his own. With his current exhibit at Art Access Gallery, which explores the emotional dynamics of relationships for people in foster care, Whiting says he’s been able to pull the two together for the first time.
Every year in Utah, more than 2,500 children experience crisis in the home and are in need of foster care. Children, from infants to teenagers, may spend just a few weeks in someone else’s home, or they may spend years, frequently staying with multiple foster families.
Whiting became interested in the subject after conversations with his neighbors, who have foster children as well as adopted children who began as foster children. As he spoke with them about their experiences he realized the emotional content of the issue would dovetail well with his artistic practice. “Fundamentally all of my artwork deals with relationships,” he says. “The foster care situation is really an interesting one. To me it’s a very real example of community and charity and a microcosm of relationship possibilities. Taking ‘strangers’ into your home and on the other side of it going to live in a ‘stranger’s’ home, with the expectation that life goes forward, is an interesting thing.”
Inspired by the Humans of New York project, as well as StoryCorps, Whiting decided to include interviews as part of his artistic process. He sought out individuals in Utah who have been part of the foster-care system, including refugees who are part of the foster program at Catholic Community Services. He admits his process was nothing like a controlled sample. Most interviewees were 12 years or older, some are no longer in the system, and the stories of refugees in foster care are dramatically different from the majority. “I’m working from the angle that ‘perception is reality,’” he says. “I’m not a scientist and I use artistic interpretation to shed light on the issue. It was important to me to not simply illustrate events that the interviewed individuals recounted. My goal has been to allude to some emotional element of the relationships.”
Back in the studio, Whiting played the recorded interviews while he drew images. “I filled a sketch book with drawings and reflections on the stories I listened to. Some of those sketches became larger pieces and some developed into new ideas, while others came to nothing,”he says. “On the larger paper I worked and reworked color, line and composition until they developed into finished works. Volume, line, texture, and figure relationships are the technical elements that are most important to me when creating my work.”
Whiting’s technique is reduced to bare essentials: he uses deceptively simple line drawings and loose washes of color to define pairs, trios and groups of figures in nondescript settings. “Down,” an enigmatic composition, features four related figures in blue — standing, floating, falling. In “Brother’s Brother,” a woman points a pencil at one boy, who looks away, while another is partially visible in the bottom left corner. In these works, Whiting draws out enough emotional content to suggest a narrative, without prescribing one: two equally adept viewers could provide equally compelling though diverging narratives for the relationships among the two men and two children in “Surviving Sons.”
The titles, Whiting says, come last. Some, like “Between Where I Was and Here” are rather poetic, and general, while others narrow one’s attention — in “Don’t Scare the White People” the title refocuses our lens on the three nondescript youth in ink wash, standing in front of a young couple, and opens up a narrative full of social contexts. Most of the titles are quoted from the interviews but a few are not. “I want to guide the viewer to an idea but still allow for interpretation. The art I enjoy most doesn’t answer all the questions.”
Whiting says everyone he interviewed was positive, even when their experiences were not. From an artistic perspective, Whiting has been successful in creating work that is, in his words, “relatable on a large scale while at the same time personal to the individual.” And though he certainly could have had no idea where the national discourse would ultimately trend when he began his project to understand the fate of the vulnerable and the displaced, he couldn’t have found a better time to meld his artistic practice with his humanitarian urges. “This is a subject that goes unnoticed by most people but I feel that it is a gauge of the respect and love we show for our local community. Are we willing to care for the underserved in our community?”