Wonderful Feats with Wallpaper, Mylar, and More

Despite a brief resurgence of toile during the last few home decorating seasons, wallpaper has pretty much fallen out of fashion during these Restoration Hardware times. So why should there be resurgent interest in the sticky stuff among artists nowadays?

There could be any number of plausible reasons. Wallpaper’s recognizable imagery appeals to Postmodernists, for instance. Or perhaps it provides artists a sense of liberation, thanks to the medium’s impermanent nature.

The Rhode Island School of Design Museum exhibition, “On the Wall: Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists,” offers a few recent examples of wallpaper’s new-found popularity. The show also suggests that the thrill of wallpaper is its limitations. The artists’ work on display reinvents a potentially mindless medium into one that is not a little politically subversive and even boundary-breaking.

In addition to their repetitious patterns, exhibit curator Judith Tannenbaum writes that wallpaper is anything but an artistic canvas, the center of attention: “The wallpaper designer has a difficult task: to create patterns that are interesting enough to be noticed and to produce the desired ambiance, but that are not so striking as to detract from the furnishings, artworks, and architectural features of a room.”

What artists like Renée Green and General Idea do with those two features is to make use of their more familiar manifestations, and then mess with our expectations. In Mise en Scène: Commemorative Toile, Green embeds vignettes derived from an 1805 engraving of black Haitian revolutionaries hanging French officers (Francesco Simeti does something similar with Afghani refugees in Arabian Nights). General Idea manipulates Robert Indiana’s LOVE logo so that it spells AIDS instead, representing the proliferation of the disease, as well as our ignoring it as just another kind of background noise. It’s a provocative riff on the directive, “look closer.”

Of course, the tack can also backfire. Take Robert Gober’s Male and Female Genital Wallpaper. The pattern is supposed to portray how attitudes about sexual identity “become ingrained by a process of repetition and reiteration so insidious and familiar that we neither notice nor question them.” If so, the work is not unlike a synthesis of General Idea’s and Simeti’s concepts, but that interpretation isn’t immediately apparent on viewing. As a result, his sounds like the explanatory text of a too-abstract-for-its-own-good graduate thesis.

If you’re wondering where the design professions appear in all of this, mylar has the answer for you. Used here, silver mylar destabilizes the architecture of the museum, forcing you to wonder where the wallpaper ends and the walls begins. Jim Isermann’s wall installation places a series of cutout mylar ellipses along the wall, for example. The series moves from solid silver on the left to full circles on the right, giving the impression of a convex wall behind it. Virgil Marti’s room of lotus blossoms screen-printed on silver mylar, punctuated by images of bonsai driftwood, transforms flat surfaces into rich, multi-dimensional spaces.

Adam Cvijanovic’s Space Park, meanwhile, also blurs the line between what’s real and what’s imaginary. His mural of a space shuttle launch seen from Titusville, Fla., painted on Tyvek, achieves the disorienting goal, if not the look, of trompe l’oeil. And Ann Agee’s wonderful highbrow-lowbrow Jello Yellow Calico elevates trash clippings to high art.

“On the Wall” runs through April 20 at The RISD Museum, 224 Benefit Street, Providence.

Also Judith Tannenbaum and Richard Brown Baker, curators of contemporary art at The RISD Museum, present a lecture at the opening reception of “On the Wall: Wallpaper and Tableau,” an exhibition of wallpapers by artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, John Baldessari, Virgil Marti, Nicole Eisenman, Robert Gober, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Jenny Holzer, Jim Isermann, Peter Kogler, Takashi Murakami, Paul Noble, Jorge Pardo, Francesco Simeti, Do Ho Suh, and William Wegman among others and tableaus by artists Carrie Mae Weems, Renée Green, and Glenn Ligon at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. The lecture is on May 9 at 6 p.m. The exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1315 Cherry Street, 5th Floor, Philadelphia, continues through mid-September. Contact Kathryn van Voorhees at 215-568-1111, kathryn@fabricworkshopandmuseum.org; see http://www.fabricworkshop.org/exhibitions/on_the_wall.php.

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