|Hedi Whitman, Tracking (6)|
Paper, drawing, T pins
Overview: Complex paper assemblages with collage elements, attached to a surface by T pins, casting shadows.
Artist’s Statement: My work centers on mental mapping, memory, and cities. American hubris and empire are underlying concerns. My constructions are built from street grids, skylines, and differing perspectives. Urban architecture, both contemporary and ancient, as well as a network of shadows are part of this uncharted territory. There is more information and many images on my website.
When the lockdown began in March I left my Boston studio for home. I started doing very small work in my dining room. At some point I remembered Dr. John Snow’s cholera map of 1854. London street maps are some of my favorites. I had used this map in my work many times for its graphic appeal. Our current pandemic reminded me of the story behind this very important map.
I started redrawing this 1854 map and incorporating it, along with other maps and data found online or in newspapers, into my paper and string constructions. The Tracking series refers to both that cholera epidemic and our current pandemic.
|Hedi Whitman, Tracking (11)|
Judith Hoos Fox: What began, in my estimation, as landscape-based paintings and works on paper where color surpassed space as a primary subject, where boundaries were respectful of the traditions of these media, has, over the years, leapt into challenging new territories. The exhibition of her work in 2004, State of Mind, at Harvard’s Mather House, is where I saw that her interest had shifted entirely from the exterior terrain into a concern with the mapping of thoughts, where investigations of brain activity found their way onto paper in the form of map-like markings.
In the 2015 exhibition Heidi Whitman: Lost Cities, at Montserrat College of Art Gallery, which included, in a sense, a chronicle of Whitman’s work giving context to the new work on view, her trajectory could be seen as both seamless and characterized by exciting strides. The journey from her early interests in physical terrain connected with investigations of interior, mental landscapes. Introduced was an additional layer that referred to the structures of cities, where physical form is the evidence of cultural and social activity constructed by humans. The work leapt from the walls, literally, extending into the gallery space. The depth of these bas reliefs echoed. A fresh and rich palette had emerged; color had moved from the Bauhausian black/white/red of earlier works to nuanced and unexpected hues that referred back to her earliest landscapes of the Southwest, but now with a bold introduction of occasional acid greens and sharp turquoises. Whitman explored space, depicted and actual, where paper is not bounded to the wall, where the gallery is brought into the image, and the artist partnered with shadow. Lines were both drawn and cast. Landscape had become city grid; mental and physical mapping had melded.
|Heidi Whitman, Tracking (4)|
For Whitman, a voracious reader and frequent researcher at the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, history is often a catalyst. The suite of works that she has created while locked down, working at her dining table, or in her studio in an all but vacated building, is spurred on by the game-changing maps made by Dr. John Snow in 1854 which led him to discover the source of cholera, one contaminated well in the Soho section of London. This was the birth of the field of epidemiology and, I suspect, of public health as well. Particularly in Tracking 4, the Dr. Snow’s diagonally canted irregular grid, its thin black hesitant lines, can be identified, in positive and negative, drawn and cut out of black paper. These intersecting lines that led to modern health studies can also be read as cages that keep us from life as we have known it, locking us inside. The somber palette of blacks and grays of the artist’s early work has returned, with occasional bits of menacing red. Whitman’s constructions tell the same story that the line and bar graphs we see on the news daily report, charting the spread and control of the Covid—19 virus—a story that haunts and menaces, with no end in sight. While the published graphs spur speculation, Heidi Whitman’s Covid series elicits dark thoughts.
Pamela Allara: The works in Heidi Whitman’s Tracking Series (2020) are maps that undercut (literally) what we expect maps to be. Their grids are not regular and do not allow us to mentally trace movement through urban space in a systematic way. The shadows the paper constructions cast when mounted at a distance from the wall confuse matters further. The mixed media constructions promise rational and coherent information, and although that promise appears broken initially, in the end a coherence born of matter and mind does emerge.
The series began as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this contemporary plague, like those in previous centuries, is especially acute in cities, where people live in close quarters. Most of the artwork responding to the pandemic to date has been representational, often portraiture of the frontline health workers. This emphasis on the heroic efforts of medical professionals is true as well of the masterpieces of the genre, such as Albert Camus’ The Plague, in which Dr. Rieux, a medical doctor attending to the stricken determines to write a chronicle that “should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in times of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Unfortunately, given the lack of leadership that has to unnecessary deaths in this country, we look to our President and see more to despise than to admire, despite the enormous efforts of the medical community. One wonders if a suitable memorial to the human cost of the pandemic in the U.S. can ever be created.
Whitman’s work does not attempt to deal with the magnitude of the loss of life due to the pandemic, but relates more directly to the experience of those who have avoided illness, and who daily try to mentally map whether its threat is approaching or receding, a challenge when accurate tracking information is lacking. In The Plague, Dr. Rieux goes from house to house in Paris, and so the novel maps his physical travels in terms of how successful he able to be in combatting the disease. Instead, the broken, fragile grids in Whitman’s Tracking Series speak to a communal system that is breaking down, a once-vibrant urban space that is now a shadow of its former self. Even the blocks of colored rectangles suggestive of urban architecture seem haphazardly joined, as in Tracking (11). It is hardly surprising that she has based the works on older as well as contemporary maps, as the sense of destruction casts these constructions into the past tense.
But as she makes clear, these are also mental maps. As communal life recedes and we are confined to our homes—and her grids are also cages-- the ability to think coherently also recedes. When we articulate our thoughts to someone else, their response leads to affirmation or qualification. Without such acknowledgement, private thoughts just wander. In Tracking (4), a flag-like shape flutters from a grid affixed to a map of the world, its red, circular patterning suggesting both the encroaching virus and spinning thoughts. In this work, Antarctica is painted red; the virus has infected even this frozen, barren section of the earth, something almost unthinkable.
And yet these constructions, with all of their intimations of death and destruction, remain lively and energetic. The complex shapes seem to dance across the walls. Much may be lost but a new coherence of both mind and matter promises to emerge.
Mark Auslander: Epidemics and pandemics occasion remarkable experiences of time travel, opening up slipstreams in the experiences of history and memory. Nearly forgotten stories and texts of plague years suddenly become deeply relevant and infinitely absorbing. States of anxiety and dread, which had been largely banished from our clean, well lighted spaces, are once again strangely familiar. Each step we take and breath we draw is now guarded: is this moment when contagion will strike? When do I reach out to help, when do I avert my eyes?
For at least 5,000 years, the history of cities and epidemics have been deeply intertwined. Population density, plentiful livestock in close proximity to people, reliance on limited water sources, challenges of sanitation, the frequent arrival of outsiders, and many other factors have long intensified risk factors in urban areas. Cities are often shaped by plagues; civil lines and elite quarters were often built on higher ground, away it was thought from noxious miasmas in low lying areas. Wide boulevards and open squares were imposed to break up dense quarters that were thought to breed disease, as well as revolution. Cities are places of magnificent individual and collective dreams, of joy and wonder, as well as lurking danger, and moment of crisis, especially pathogenic, may open up unexpected channels between moments of time.
This general tendency is brilliantly explored in Vincent Ward’s 1988 film, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. Seeking relief from the Black Death of mid 14th century Cumbria, a group of villagers dig through the earth and emerge in Christ Church, New Zealand, hoping to erect a cross upon the famous cathedral spire. They find themselves surrounded by shadowy hints of the HIV/AIDS plague, one plague opening up a tunnel, in effect, to another.
Heidi Whitman’s Tracking Series plays with this partial interchangeability (or perhaps transposability) of cities in crisis. Her various intricate assemblages of urban maps, casting evocative shadows on the surface below, could in principle be lifted up and set down elsewhere, their rather chaotic overlaps equally attuned to multiple urban spaces. Aspects of cholera-plagued London of 1854 could be extracted and slotted into any world city of 2020. The specific contours of each city at each moment of history are of course different, but the general apprehension of a shadowy underworld, that there is something lurking underneath any great city, incipient danger that cannot be fully named or contained, endures. This shared uncanny experience of lurking darkness, whether it is understood as miasma or rogue RNA,endures across the centuries, and is called back into being with each mass disease flare up.
In N.K. Jemisin’s fantastical short story “The City Born Great” ( in her new collection, How Long ’Til Black Future Month) we meet avatars of the world’s great cities, who defend each metropolis against the lurking darkness that threatens it, a condensation were given to understand of the collective intolerance that writhes in rage against the cosmopolitan energy and diversity of the urban. Each city sends forth an emissary to find a street waif in an endangered city, fostering in her or him the passionate artistry and intensity that the city needs to do battle with the forces of darkness.
I read Whitman’s paper assemblages as something comparable. They are distillations of a specific city at a specifiable moment (such as London in 1854) yet they can be slotted into other cities, now and in the future, as they dance their eternal dance, of creativity, death, and rebirth. The spirit of John Snow’s scientific mapping of contagion emanating from single water pump must travel to other times and places, especially to our current moment, when science and rationality are so deeply under siege. So too must the spirit of endless creativity and recombination, the soul of any great city, be summoned up and spread, as a kind of vaccinating anti-virus, from city to city across the great arc of time.