Monday, September 1st, 2003

On the Wall: Wallpaper and Tableau

Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia
May 9 to September 13, 2003 

Left to Right: Gray Bar Hotel, 2003 by Nicole Eisenman, nobnest zed, 2002 by Paul Noble, Lotus Room, 2003 by Virgil Marti, and Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82 by Jenny Holzer Photo by Will Brown
Left to Right: Gray Bar Hotel, 2003 by Nicole Eisenman, nobnest zed, 2002 by Paul Noble, Lotus Room, 2003 by Virgil Marti, and Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82 by Jenny Holzer Photo by Will Brown

Victorian wallpaper was used as a status symbol along with other tasteful furnishings by the burgeoning bourgeoisie of the 19th century. Densely packed and richly colored, its heyday coincided with the apex of mechanical reproduction. Oddly enough, this “machine-made” quality is what English designers like William Morris were reacting against when they introduced a handcrafted process and designs that mimicked the gothic. Their work continues to form our view of “classic” decorative wallpaper. In the early 20th century, wallpaper design followed the arts loosely through many styles: art deco, modern-abstract and mock colonial; but by the mid century it had evolved into a debased variation created for suburban houses. These were cheaply made, inoffensive and made little statement apart from matching the avocado or beige color scheme. Now, after decades of white and off-white walls, we have begun to decorate again with Pottery Barn leading the way, selling us an ersatz “Arts and Crafts” movement. Though today’s domestic interiors have the emphasis on technology (have we begun to think of the “house” itself as an “appliance?), and are littered with computer gear, we want a little coziness,albeit in a post-modern sort of way. It is interesting, then, to see how contemporary artists deal with this quaint notion of wallpaper.

The exhibition, On the Wall: Wallpaper and Tableau, at the Fabric Museum and Workshop In Philadelphia, updates our view of wallpaper in a major way. Including 33 artists and numerous historical pieces, the exhibition showcases excellent examples of contemporary art. (Of contemporary art or contemporary wallpaper? Or do you mean excellent examples of the ideas inherent in contemporary art.?) This is not an easy task since contemporary art envelops so many concerns normally not confined to walls. The usual axioms of race, gender and politics are to be expected, but when the artists grab onto some aspect of decoration and twist it -this is where the show really does make a statement about the relationship of contemporary art (wallpaper?)to its wallpaper (Victorian?) predecessor. This double intention gives the show an inherent contradiction that could have been emphasized; it deals with issues of art versus decoration by default while simultaneously dealing with artists’ usual concerns. Having said this, the show becomes more of a showcase for these concerns rather than attempting to make any larger cohesive statement about our wider relationship to the decorative arts.

Andy Warhol succeeded in using this medium and set a well-known precedent with his Cow Wallpaper from 1966. He was the first to make the connection between art and domestic (commercial?) products, and artists have been following his lead ever since. Virgil Marti’s Lotus Room nods to Warhol and forms the centerpiece of the show. This is a mixture of homage to a “tasteless” past and a formal exercise in reflective qualities of Mylar and stick-on flowers. This is a wonderful work, though I was disappointed in not finding a sofa, a large palm and a stereo playing Abba to complete the installation. His day-glow, black-lit Bully Wallpaper, which literally depicts people (bullies?) from his high school yearbook, does not have this contextual problem. Installed cleverly in the men’s room, it evokes the seventies so strongly it is scary. This is where the mix of materials and metaphors is most effective, a successful amalgam of style as (and?) content. Other witty works by artists Renee Green and Rodney Graham update the past effectively though they both needed to be more enclosed. These are pieces that could easily be pasted up in work places and homes. (explain what these look like) Notables like John Baldessari and Robert Gober were marginalized in glass cases, and Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays seem out of place perhaps because there is no nod to decoration (explain what they do have if not a nod to decoration.). This is where the contemporary “historical” aspects of the show didn’t work so well. Adam Cvijanovic’s hand painted removable mural wallpapers show a clever technical development on traditional wallpaper but his suburban scene doesn’t connect much with the method. (this last sentence should be moved up in sequence; the “doesn’t work so well” sentence should be your last to sum up the general feel of the exhibition.)

Virgil Marti Lotus Room 2003 photo Aaron Igler
Virgil Marti, Lotus Room 2003 photo Aaron Igler

Organized by Judith Tannenbaum, Curator of Contemporary Art at the RISD Museum, the show began as a smaller version (on a smaller scale?) with a slightly different title: On the Wall, Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists. It has now been expanded by Marion Stroud, Director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and includes more artists and tableau. This ambitious expansion perhaps included too many possibilities to explore. Curator Tannenbaum’s assertion concludes that artists subvert the everyday simply by adding content in the form of politics or sexual imagery to the so-called “background,” but this is simplistic. Although many works in the show do this, there is not enough tableau to contrast it nor enough “real” rooms to emphasize the inherent ironies. It is certainly the use-value of these decorative objects that is most interesting (regardless of the subject), but that can only truly be gauged outside the museum context. The wallpapers that worked best were the ones that indeed subverted our idea of decoration but they were, oddly enough, the prettiest to look at in the conventional sense. Nicole Eisenman’s amusing Dr Suess-like illustrations of life in a women’s prison are an effective example. That is the twist. Omitting that twist made the Jenny Holzer work fall “flat” and made the Bullies in the bathroom effectively creepy. Apparently film director Gus Van Zandt (My Own Private Idaho) has wallpapered his office with Virgil Marti’s “Bullies.” Now, that I’d like to see.