Walls Are Talking

To any normal soul, the prospect of visiting a whole exhibition dedicated to wallpaper may sound rather like a glorified trip to B&Q. However, when I clapped eyes on the promo material for the Whitworth gallery’s exhibition dedicated to wallpaper, art and culture, I excitedly began organising my trip there and then. Blame it on my adoration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, but I have long thought that wallpaper, as a medium, is ripe for artistic subversion.

The Manchester Whitworth’s Walls Are Talking is the first major UK exhibition of  wallpapers created by artists (with major names such as Andy Warhol, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst in the mix), and its aim is to take wallpaper away from its comfortable purpose of  aesthetic backdrop and present it as a confrontational force in delivering messages about warfare, racism, cultural conflicts and gender.

The big names are sure to pull in curious art lovers eager to see Warhol’s famed Cow Wallpaper and Hirst’s odes to pharmaceuticals and butterflies. But, whilst I was pleased to see Sarah Lucas’s Tits in Space and Julie Verhoeven’s Show Studio commissioned pornographic chinoiserie, it was actually the lesser known artists that opened my eyes up to the artistic possibilities of wallpaper.

Vigil Marti’s ‘Bullies’ (above), for example, is an eye meltingly vivid depiction of all the school peers who had teased him for his homosexuality, presenting them as a garish constant in the background of a victim’s existence. Canadian artists collective General Idea’s work ‘Aids‘ (1988), based on Robert Indiana’s infamous Love, is a clever play on the replication of the virus in host cells whilst also portraying the shift to a time when free love is no longer easy and innocent.

I also loved Zineb Sedira provocative ‘Quatre Generacions Des Femmes’ (1997) which combines the masculine (in form and as an occupation) Islamic geometric patterning with the names of the women in her family, asserting the importance of females in societal structures.

Any visitors who do stumble into this exhibition because they see a connection with The Yellow Wallpaper (which, I have to admit, is never alluded to by The Whitworth… although I can’t believe the curators aren’t aware of the story) will not be dissapointed as there are plenty of subversions of wallpaper around themes of  monotony and claustrophobia. Kelly Mark’s 12345 (1999/2000) is a simple hand-drawn tally in black on white, counting the passage of time (or the ticking off of domestic duties) as if in a prison cell.

Lisa Hecht’s Chain Link Fence (2000) and Matthew Meadows Razorwire 2 (2007) also play on the idea of imprisonment, making a statement that however comfortable and luxurious a home can be, it can also feel like a stifling and restrictive environment. Hayley Tomkin’s ‘Cry Baby’ (1996, below) draws an instant emotive response to its muddle of sad babies – is this the stuff of nightmares, or simply the stuff of sleepless nights?

I must admit I was surprised just how enjoyable and engaging an entire exhibition dedicated to all things patterned and flocked was, but you really have to hand it to the folks at the Whitworth in that respect. There were some classic works in there, some fantastic graphic works and a lot of important messages.  Much better than a trip to B&Q, any day!

Walls Are Talking is free to enter and runs until August the 30th.

By: Sarah Barnes, 13.05.2010 | Comments (0)
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