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Ai Wei Wei, Odyssey, 2017

“Interior decorating with a vengeance.”

Iconography changed, and wallpaper soon began to simulate wood, stucco, brick, flowers, and branches. Nature was being eliminated by urbanization and bourgeois industrialization so its ghosts were printed onto walls. Of course, forests and real flowers get destroyed to make wallpaper. “We kill with technology and save the victim with art.”

In settler America, wallpapers were meant to help women communicate the moral standing of her family. She was in charge of curating an artful experience that could lead everyone to a profound sense of harmony and spirituality. At least that’s what the magazines and “paperhangers” were saying. Advertisers still claim wallpapers can “fix your walls,” and there are some strong, hot prints out there.

Wallpapers express a culture’s “idle fancies,” but historians of material culture also note how they work to structure class, race, gender, and memory, and contemporary artists demonstrate ongoing social, psychological, historical, and spiritual dimensions of the wallpaper medium. As William Irwin Thompson put it, artists are the journalists of civilization, (but they sometimes talk about the news in 500-year cycles rather than just the day-to-day events).

For their wallpapers, artists still copy images from their environments, but now, on top of the flowers and toile, we get Bible passages and pills (Damien Hirst), car crashes (Flat Vernacular), genitals, lynching and sleeping (Robert Gober), slavery and rape (Kara Walker), mushroom clouds and cows (Andy Warhol, see Queer Wallpaper), the interracial queer-erotics of Miss Chief Eagle Testicle (Kent Monkman), fake totem poles and Indigenous survivance (Nicholas Galanin), cigarettes and tits (Sarah Lucas), school bullies (Virgil Marti), Hitler and Duchamp (Rudolf Herz), handcuffs, surveillance cameras, Twitter birds, and the global refugee crisis (Ai Wei Wei), pixilated plants and file corruption “information loss” (Joiri Minaya), FBI surveillance materials and her father (Sadie Barnette), dilapidated homes in her Lawrence, Kansas neighborhood (Yoonmi Nam), peep-show boxes and architecture (Victor Burgin), lowriders and roses (Nanibah Chacon), and links to ongoing histories of black and brown bodies (Kehinde Wylie).

Nick Cave transforms 2-d wallpaper patterns into 3-d “sound suits” and also projects tiny abstract films onto old walls like wallpaper. Rodney McMillan hangs used, dirty carpets onto walls to be admired like wallpaper. Japanese art star Yayoi Kusama “obliterates” herself and her sculptures with red polka-dot wallpaper. Francesca Woodman obliterates her naked body in an old house with large sheets of peeling floral wallpaper.

Francesca Woodman, Space2, 1977
Francesca Woodman, Space2, 1977
Francesca Woodman, Space2, 1977
Nick Cave, Sound Suits, Mixed media, 2019
Nick Cave, Sound Suits, Mixed media, 2019
Nick Cave, Sound Suits, Mixed media, 2019
Nick Cave, Sound Suits, Mixed media, 2019
Nick Cave, Sound Suits, Mixed media, 2019
Nick Cave, Sound Suits, Mixed media, 2019
Nick Cave, Sound Suits, Mixed media, 2019
Nick Cave, Hy-Dyve, 14-channel video, 2016
Nick Cave, Hy-Dyve, 14-channel video, 2016
Nick Cave, Hy-Dyve, 14-channel video, 2016
Nick Cave, Hy-Dyve (Kansas City), 14-channel video, abandoned church, wood, 2016
Nick Cave, Hy-Dyve (Kansas City), 14-channel video, abandoned church, wood, 2016
Nick Cave, Hy-Dyve (Kansas City), 14-channel video, abandoned church, wood, 2016
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Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever, Mixed media, 2011
Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever, Mixed media, 2011
Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love For The Tulips, I Pray Forever, Mixed media, 2011
Nicholas Galanin, Imaginary Indian, mixed media, 2010
Nicholas Galanin, Imaginary Indian, mixed media, 2010
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Nicholas Galanin, Imaginary Indian, mixed media, 2010
Rodney McMillian, Untitled, Carpet from an American living room, 2005
Rodney McMillian, Untitled, Carpet from an American living room, 2005
Rodney McMillian, Untitled, Carpet from an American living room, 2005
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Damien Hirst, Pharmacy Wallpaper, 1997
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Sadie Barnette, Untitled (Dad, 1966 and 1968), 2016 (detail)
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Sadie Barnette, Untitled (Dad, 1966 and 1968), 2016
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Flat Vernacular, Toile de Derby — Driver’s Door Wallpaper, 2020
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Sarah Lucas, Tits in Space, wallpaper for The Fag Show, 2009
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Virgil Marti, Bullies, 1997
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Joiri Minaya, Redecode: a tropical theme is a great way to create a fresh, peaceful, relaxing atmosphere, 2015
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Yoonmi Nam, Toile, 2016
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Kara Walker, Auntie Walker’s Wall Sample for Civilians, 2013
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Robert Gober, Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, 1989 Mixed media
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Robert Gober, Male and Female Genital Wallpaper, 1989. Dave Hickey calls Gober’s wallpapers “interior decorating with a vengeance.”
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Ai Wei Wei, Odyssey, 2017
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Ai Wei Wei, The Golden Age, 2017
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Rudolf Herz, Zugzwang, the famous portraits of Marcel Duchamp and Adolf Hitler taken by the same photographer, 1995
Kent Monkman, Miss Chief’s Wallflowers, 2017
Kent Monkman, Miss Chief’s Wallflowers, 2017
Kent Monkman, Miss Chief’s Wallflowers, 2017
Andy Warhol, Red Explosion [Atomic Bomb], 1963
Andy Warhol, Red Explosion [Atomic Bomb], 1963
Andy Warhol, Red Explosion [Atomic Bomb], 1963
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Andy Warhol, Cow Wallpaper, 1966
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Kehinde Wiley, Sleep, 2008 and La ​Roi a la Chasse, 2006
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Nanibah Chacon, What Dreams Are Made Of. acrylic on canvas, 2018

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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