Question the Wall Itself
by Jonathan Griffin
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Do not make your way to ‘Question the Wall Itself’, the Walker Art Center’s survey of artists’ work with interior architecture and decor, if you are looking for ideas for new curtains in the back bedroom. The only fabric samples on display belong to the collection of the late Seth Siegelaub, sourced from Oceania and Africa, and are hand-painted on brown barkcloth. On second thought, actually, this is a great place to get ideas for your curtains.
The works in ‘Question the Wall Itself’ might more successfully (and more accessibly) have been regrouped into several different exhibitions. As things stand, the paths of association can sometimes be hard to follow. The core of the exhibition (in my reading) includes Nairy Baghramian, Tom Burr, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Janette Laverrière, Lucy McKenzie and Cerith Wyn Evans. All are linked by what might be described as a queer aesthetic, not one predicated on sexuality so much as a political position that is based in feminism, alterity, pleasure, the handmade, the diaristic, resistance behind closed doors and a radical collapsing of the private and the public.
Some of this loose tribe of art works trace their ancestry to Marcel Broodthaers, proponent of what he called esprit décor – described in the exhibition pamphlet by curator Fionn Meade as the show’s ‘guiding principle’. (Meade must presumably take responsibility for the show’s awful title.) Broodthaers’s ‘Décors’ (1966-1975) – gallery environments that he insisted were not installations but things akin to stage or theatre sets – might be clues to the inclusion of certain artists whose presence here is otherwise confounding.
Most, like Broodthaers – who is represented by his arrangement Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Say Everywhere I Said So, 1974) – do not make interiors at all. Danh Vo and Theaster Gates are each represented by stone memorials, Vo’s to his father and Gates’s to musicians Frankie Knuckles and Muddy Waters, which approach a functionality beyond the museum that Broodthaers intended for the elements of his ‘Décors’.
The exhibition sags when it begins to feel like a meandering and over-assiduously illustrated thesis, as with the inexplicable inclusions of Uri Aran and Alejandro Cesarco. It really sings, however, when trans-historical meetings occur: Siegelaub’s textiles hung near McKenzie’s trompe l’oeil; Nick Mauss’s arrangement of 1920s paintings by Florine Stettheimer beside his mirror painting F.S. Interval II (2014); or Carlo Mollino’s nude photographs from 1956–72 in custom frames designed by Baghramian, adjacent to Paul Sietsema’s wilfully anachronistic paintings and 16mm films. Though these works may not all be about décor, together they show that interiors are not places of confinement or triviality; rather, they are spaces of untrammelled expression and deep cultural significance.
First published: Frieze, issue 185, March 2017