Manifestations of the Design Art Movement

Walls Are Talking at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester saw a major survey into design aesthetics through the unexpected medium of wallpaper.

At the end of the noughties the fusion of art and design is ever more apparent, with the decline of the art market nudging a move towards the middling stratums of society as traditional monied investments have dried up. The marriage between the two has seen artists’ explorations into mass mediums and products of the domestic as well as of the gallery setting, with Grayson Perry’s recent release collaboration with Liberty, designing a range of prints for the department store, epitomising the movement into the mass scale commerciality of art.

Design, be it product, furniture, fashion and interior, was recently branded by Christopher Townsend as “simply another aspect of the market” and the continuation naturally stems from Pop Art’s insistence on the interrogation of the everyday. Donald Judd’s exploration of furniture combines with the canonical nature enjoyed by Eames chairs and Anglepoise lamps, to develop a new area of output for fine art. The Whitworth Art Gallery’s new exhibition, Walls are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture, explores this relationship, collecting together wallpapers from over 30 artists ranging from Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst, Sarah Lucas, to Niki de St. Phalle, David Shrigley, Martin Boyce, Robert Gober and Thomas Demand.

Compiled by Christine Woods, Senior Curator of Prints, in the Word & Image Department at the V&A, and Jill Saunders, Walls Are Talking is a timely recognition of the preponderance of wallpaper in fine art over the last two decades, with such a wide selection attesting to the medium’s popularity and the ability of the domestic to challenge and disconcert the viewer. Woods explains: “The exhibition is an exploration of the role of wallpaper in contemporary art, and we hope to show how and why artists have chosen to make or design wallpapers, and also how, why and to what effect they have used or adapted historic patterns and styles.” The Whitworth venue provides the opportunity to contextualise the works within the wider realm of wallpaper practice across the 20th and 21st centuries, with a selection of the gallery’s thousands of commercial papers plotting the evolution of the medium in questioning the domestic and the mundane.

The appropriation of domestic and traditional crafts for a subversive critique is nothing new, with Tracey Emin practicing a long tradition of embroidery and appliqué work, and Perry’s tapestry and ceramics at the forefront of handicraft meeting fine art. Woods also argues that, “several of the artists in this show, including Gober and Green, were in the vanguard of this movement. Now more artists are choosing to use domestic crafts (embroidery, upholstery) or domestic furnishings (wallpaper, flooring, fabric, chairs) as a means of introducing or addressing ‘difficult’ or uncomfortable ideas about society, politics and personal experience.” Walls Are Talking certainly addresses an eclectic array of issues, and the artists have not allowed the kitsch, almost chintzy connotations of wallpaper to undermine their, at times acerbic, at times humorous, observations, exploring race, femininity, popular culture, the adaptability of traditional motifs and the colourful joys of graphics at various points.

Robert Gober’s Hanging Man/ Sleeping Man (1989), depicting found imagery of a sleeping white man and a lynched black man, is suggested by the artist to represent a “racist fantasy or dream,” and Gober accuses us of complicity through the close approximation of the two figures, “implying that those who enjoy comfortable lives and ‘untroubled sleep’ are complicit in racist crimes and injustices, simply by allowing them to fade in the background.” In surrounding the visitor with such a domesticated, almost comfortable, medium, the issues at hand become all the more unsettling. Race is a central theme with many artists more exultant in their treatment than Gober. Sonia Boyce’s Devotional Wallpaper features a roll call of black female singers, both high profile and lesser known. The singers are presented in a repetitive, formal sequence, and celebrate, not only the omnipresence of music in our lives, but the achievements of black women in conquering racial boundaries and a notoriously difficult industry. Sedira’s Une Generation de Femmes, further emphasises ethnicity, extolling the matriarchal structures of family life. Sedira repeatedly places the faces of herself, her mother and her grandmother within an Islamic grid, for the viewer to see the women as if “from behind a screen of the kind which segregates women from men in traditional Muslim households.” Instead of being hidden in Muslim society, these women are suddenly all around us, their difference and identity applauded. Renée Green’s Commemorative Toile (1992) addresses the inadequacies of black history more explicitly. Based on traditional toiles de Jouy courting figures, Green has substituted black figures of authority to “reminds us that Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries were not merely slaves or chattels; many were educated, independent and capable of self-determination, but we rarely see this aspect of black history represented in museum displays and exhibitions.”

Walls Are Talking spans the amusing (Shrigley), to the grossly disconcerting (Gober). More subtlety (and further shock value) is offered by Thomas Demand’s Ivy/Efeu (2006), where heavy ivy patterning becomes on closer inspection, the reconstruction of a building. It is only on acknowledging this as Demand’s reconstruction of a cell where a child was imprisoned and murdered by family members that the harrowing connotations of the imagery becomes clear. Woods furthers: “The dense ivy evokes the menace of fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel, but also suggests the covering-up of what goes on behind closed doors. It also plays with ideas of inside/outside, and made the architecture of the gallery an explicit feature of the exhibition.” More adolescent horrors are illustrated in Timorous Beasties’ Devil Damask Flock, where ornate Baroque works morph into monstrous demons leering about the room, or Boyce’s Clapping, the menacing hands surrounding the onlooker with taunting jeers.

The most powerful potential of the wallpapers lies in their sheer repetition; to envelope the viewer the exhibition necessitates a focus on quantity, for the disconcerting, the celebratory and the macabre to attain their aim. Many of the wallpapers will be hung on large panels, while Ivy/Efeu will be hung throughout the main exhibition space and Michael Craig-Martin will cover more than 15 metres of wall space. It’s an interesting study of the fluctuations of the medium, and enables the pieces to be addressed as works of art, avoiding their decorative connotations.

Walls Are Talking becomes a part of the ongoing democratization of art, the wallpapers have become the new form of limited edition print, with Sarah Lucas’ Tits in Space available to purchase at the Whitechapel, and numerous artists embracing the availability of their work to a wider audience. “The rising profile of wallpaper in the domestic interior has very much been driven by the availability of bespoke or ‘interactive’ wallpapers which the consumer can commission or customize, thus adding the ‘hand-crafted’ element themselves.” Woods hopes the exhibition will continue the discourse between art and design manifested in this commercialization and the V&A’s recent Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design. “This exhibition will demonstrate that the same kinds of cross-overs and relationships are taking place in the field of wallpaper, as well as other kinds of wall-coverings, and pattern design more generally. Indeed it will make it clear that this marriage of art and design has an established history, and artists’ wallpaper may indeed be one of earliest manifestations of the ‘Design Art’ movement.”

Rather than cashing in on a popularization of their work, most of the artists have continued in a clear vein from their ongoing preoccupations. While this may be more accessible to artists such as Niki de St Phalle and David Shrigley, Woods attests, “in almost every case it is possible to trace a natural progression or a connection between an artist’s work in another medium (painting, sculpture, photography etc) and their wallpaper designs,” with Hirst referencing butterflies as well as his Last Supper and New Religion prints. “Given that it is now commonplace for artists to work in a range of 2D and 3D formats, and in various media, employing specialist fabricators where necessary, it is not particularly surprising to find many of them designing, if not actually printing, their own wallpaper. The artists have embraced and exploited the domestic and/or decorative qualities of wallpaper.” All the pieces stand alone as previous works, demonstrating the proliferation of wallpaper throughout the last 20 years, which is now sufficiently documented through the artists’ works in context of the medium’s own popular renaissance.

Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture ran at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester from 6 February to 3 May 2010.

Ruby Beesley