Walls Are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture

2010 Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester in 2010, published Walking are Talking, Art and Culture as an accompaniment to an exhibition of the same name. The Whitworth holds an extensive archive of wallpapers that encompass wall coverings produced across more than three centuries from domestic to commercial designs to those made as fine art.  The introduction essay “It’s the background that explains the foreground” written by Gill Saunders describes the (often contradictory) relationship between art, wallpaper and the consumer, and the questions the perceived neutrality of our papered walls.  The book, while mainly dealing with wallpapers designed by artists seeking to subvert wallpaper’s traditional function as innocuous background to daily life, points out that in fact, wallpaper has rarely been just background.  While wallpapers by contemporary artists proclaim their subversive intention, domestic wall coverings have always had a more covert influence. 

Since the 1990’s, avante-garde artists have been using wallpaper increasingly to explore themes of home, memory and identity.  Wallpaper has been an important signifier of social, cultural and fashionable status since the 18th century becoming both the silent witness of and active participant in Western culture.  By regarding wallpaper as nothing more than “white noise” we allow ourselves to ignore rather than address its power.  It is this power that has been harnessed by contemporary artists.

Wallpaper is identified almost exclusively with the domestic interior and is an effective strategy for exploring ideas around home, identity, memory and childhood.  Generally regarded as ‘merely’ decorative, an innocuous backdrop to our lives, it becomes so commonplace it renders itself invisible but in effect wallpaper as a signifier of home can be powerfully evocative, triggering memories of the past, particularly memories of childhood and early life. Our homes and our furnishings are marked with traces of our physical presence, indented cushions, worn carpets, faded wallpapers all act as silent witnesses to the secrets of domestic life and offers the artist a simple way of transforming  an object so that the viewer understands it as ‘domestic’.

Catherine Bertola’s cut-out version of William Morris’s Marigold was ‘flocked’ with dust and sweepings, and the furred contents of the vacuum cleaner bag, and embellished with the desiccated bodies of moths and beetles, spiders and flies.  She built the pattern week by week; adding a new branch, a new cluster of flowers, as she received the latest accumulations of dust, posted to her studio in Newcastle.  The installation engaged subtly with the ideas of repetition – of a decorative pattern (wallpaper) and of a process (cleaning).





Catherine Bertola, After the fact, 2006.

Though it has become less fashionable to use wallpaper in our homes, it has become a ubiquitous feature of our visual environment – no longer simply a domestic decoration we frequently are bombarded with repeated patterns; a ‘wallpaper’ of brand names, logos and sponsors plastered behind our sports teams, politicians, film red carpets.  Time magazine noted this phenomenon in 2002, observing that the American government had “made a habit of visual message bearing, regularly wallpapering the president’s backdrop with the official theme of the day.”  Pop culture, political statement, fine art, and advertising: wallpaper has come a long way since it left home and began making an exhibition of itself.

Trevor Keeble discusses the themes in the work of Catherine Bertola  in his essay Wallpaper, Dust and ‘Muck of that Sort’  saying  “Wallpaper has no function beyond simply ‘decoration’, it is a material through which homes are made, and a material through which they are changed.  In this sense, wallpaper becomes not just some measure of household taste, but a salient record of time’s passing that speaks not just of the history of a room or a building, but of the moments and lives of the people who lived there.  This, I think, is the artistic terrain of Catherine Bertola.”

Along with objects and materials such as lace, textiles, paint and dust, wallpaper has offered Bertola a substance through which to investigate the ways things and spaces are made, and, in turn, the ways these things and spaces ‘make’ the lives lived through them and with them.  This concern with the mundane materials and objects of everyday life belies a preoccupation with the ways in which time and the passing time become inscribed and materialized in the things around us.  This has provided her a rich theme through which to explore issues of inhabitation, memory and place. Bertola’s art is concerned quite fundamentally with the process of making and materiality. The critical and conceptual frameworks of her work are achieved through a deep and inquisitive engagement with the nature and processes of making.  Whether concerned with the making of objects, from stainless steel cutlery or ladies lace, or of the spaces, boundaries and thresholds of the home, her body of work to date is characterized by an in-depth process of research as creative practice.



Catherine Bertola, Walls are Talking, 2010


Catherine Bertola, Everything and nothing, 2007

Author: Dorothy de Lautour

Dorothy graduated with a degree in Design and Visual Arts (Contemporary Craft - Jewellery) at Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand. She was selected as an exhibitor for Objectspace's "Best in Show - 2012" and has exhibited in Wellington for NZ Academy of Fine Arts and in Auckland at Lopdell House.

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