Ai Wei Wei, Odyssey, 2017

Wallpaper doesn’t just decorate a room. It helps walls become windows that tell stories. Early European papers were literally religious icons. In France, Christian icons called dominos were placed on walls in lower-class homes, “where they performed a double function, being both a talisman against bad luck and a covering for the cracks in the walls.”

Iconography changed, and wallpaper soon began to simulate wood, stucco, brick, flowers, and trees. 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), 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 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).

“Interior decorating with a vengeance.” 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, 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
Rodney McMillian, Untitled, Carpet from an American living room, 2005
Rodney McMillian, Untitled, Carpet from an American living room, 2005
Flat Vernacular, Toile de Derby — Driver’s Door Wallpaper, 2020
Virgil Marti, Bullies, 1997
Yoonmi Nam, Toile, 2016
Kara Walker, Auntie Walker’s Wall Sample for Civilians, 2013
Robert Gober, Male and Female Genital Wallpaper, 1989. Dave Hickey calls Gober’s wallpapers “interior decorating with a vengeance.”
Ai Wei Wei, The Golden Age, 2017
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
Andy Warhol, Red Explosion [Atomic Bomb], 1963
Andy Warhol, Red Explosion [Atomic Bomb], 1963
Andy Warhol, Cow Wallpaper, 1966
Nanibah Chacon, What Dreams Are Made Of. acrylic on canvas, 2018

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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