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Sunday, 7 February 2010

Exhibition - Walls Are Talking - Whitworth Art Gallery

Star rating 8/10

Wallpaper is usually associated with homely scenes of domestic comfort, but not in this new collaboration between the Whitworth Art Gallery and the V&A. Nothing could be further from the images and feelings conjured up by this wallpaper collection that was not designed to adorn our homes, but to shock, question and definitely not to take a back seat.

The pieces shown here include offers from the likes of Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. The usual concept of our homes as our castles is subverted as some of the artists here use wallpaper to show the home as a place of subjugation, confinement and repression. ‘Chain Link Fence’ by Lisa Hecht, and ‘Five Bar Gate’ by Kelly Mark both convey enclosure and imprisonment. Pieces like ‘Razorwire’ by Matthew Meadows look at first glance to be a richly decorated ornate classical pattern, but on closer inspection the piece uses razor wire to suggest violence and internment.

War and conflict are depicted explicitly in many of the pieces, such as Francesco Sineti’s ‘Acorn’, which has classical cameo patterns filled with disturbing scenes of chemical warfare and people in biohazard suits dealing with obvious contamination. An odd mix indeed. Bashire Makhoul’s ‘Points of View’ shows a repeat pattern of bullet holes in a Beirut wall. A bloody murder scene is enacted in Abigail Lane’s ‘Bloody Wallpaper’ where blood stains hand prints of the murder victim on a plain cream background are on show.

Less violent but nonetheless forcefully made political points are made in wallpaper pieces to reflect the fight against AIDS, and the ignorance of society about the disease. One of the most powerful pieces for me was ‘Bullies’ by Virgil Marti, who used his high school year book to get pictures of all the people who bullied him at school as a gay teenager. Their larger than life faces are repeated in the wallpaper’s pattern in lurid psychedelic colours.

Catherine Bertola recreates fictional wallpaper from literature in her great 3-D piece ‘Beyond the Looking Glass’, whose leaves dripping down reminded me of the magical words in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ when Max’s walls become the world all around, and he goes off on his wonderful adventure. Andy Warhol’s unmistakable style is there is his ‘Cows’ piece – with huge pink cow heads against a yellow background, a pattern he was to go on to use in many other pieces. Damien Hirst uses wallpaper to portray drug use in his ‘Pharmacy’, which strangely also has quotations from the Bible next to the pills, and was apparently used in his London restaurant. Not really sure it would have done much for my appetite.

A separate gallery shows how wallpaper has been used to portray sexually explicit images, and also to generally keep women as we want them - nice and sweet like the Spice Girls wallpaper on display here.

Most of the pieces were never intended to go on our walls, and are works of art in their own right, which is lucky because no-one in their right mind would wan to sit down and relax with a nice glass of wine looking at most of these images. One exception is the rather wonderful ‘Blank Cheque’ by Chris Taylor and Craig Wood who show repeated images of blank cheques both to pay homage to a bit of our culture that will soon be resigned to the rubbish dump of history, and also to suggest the blank cheques that the city bankers felt that they could write themselves for services rendered. Nice touch, and available in the gallery shop to buy. A very interesting and thought provoking exhibition. You may never look at your walls in quite the same way again…

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