BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 13 JAN 17

Question the Wall Itself

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA

BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 13 JAN 17

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.

Lucy McKenzie, Loos House, 2013, installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2013. Courtesy: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Chaimowicz’s installation Here and There (1978–2016), which opens one half of the exhibition, is a key example. On three sides of a small gallery, leaning grey plywood panels – some block-printed with rippling, irregular patterns – have photographs pasted to their surfaces; these were shot in and around the artist’s London flat, itself something between an expanded installation and a stage set. A monitor displays a film from the 1970s of the artist at home: performing, or just living?

Nearby, McKenzie’s Loos House (2013) constitutes another stage, this time a four-sided construction based on a room in Adolf Loos’s Villa Müller (1930) in Prague. Its surfaces are painted in trompe loeil green cipollino marble (one of Loos’s signature materials), although McKenzie’s version consciously falls short of rendering them anything more than aspirational simulacra. As with many installations in ‘Question the Wall Itself’, which transpose one environment (usually domestic) into another (the public institution), the abstracted Loos House is an act of deliberate slippage, a provocative mistranslation and reversal. A queering, if you will.

Marcel Broodthaers, Dites partout que je l’ai dit, 1974, reproduction of a print representing a parrot, stuffed parrot under bell-glass, collage and painting of a poem by Marcel Broodthaers, tape recorder playing the taped poem, ‘Moi je dis je, moi je dis je…’, read by the artist, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © Estate Marcel Broodthaers; photograph: Michael Werner Gallery, New York, 2010

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 lai 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’.

Nick Mauss, FS Interval II, 2014, installation view. Courtesy: 303 Gallery, New York © Nick Mauss

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 loeil; 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.

Main image: Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Here and There, 1978, onstallation view, Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 2010. Courtesy: the artist and Inverleith House, Edinburgh

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.