Excessive Ornamentation: Gothic Wallpaper

by on Apr.04, 2011

I’ve been writing a little about “ornament” and how it’s almost always accompanied by the term “excessive” when applied to art or writing. Ornamentality is both tasteless and evil. It leads you astray – away from depth, centrality (God? Daddy?) into some kind of miasmic energy. This applies of course to a wide range of arts – but due to the current favorite topic of Montevidayo, we can see how it most definitely applies to “lowbrow” artists like Gary Baseman and Camille Rose Garcia who not only make ornamental art but include wallpaper in their art and even make their own wallpaper for show. It is also true that the “gothic” has traditionally been seen as lowbrow, as too “expressive,” as tasteless, as mass culture, and importantly as feminine (That’s a woman in the wallpaper! Not to mention in the creek!).

This from Wilhelm Worringer’s 1908 “Form in Gothic” (originally in German):

“Our organically tempered sense of vitality recoils before this senseless rage of express as from a debauch. When, however, finally yielding to compulsion, its energies flood these lifeless lines, it feels itself carried away in a strange and wonderful manner and raised to an ecstasy of movement, far outstripping any possibilities of organic movement. The pathos of movement which lies in this vitalized geometry – a prelude to the vitalized mathematics of Gothic architecture – forces our sensibility to an effort unnatural to it. When once the natural barriers of organic movement have been overthrown, there is no more holding back: again and again the line is broken, again and again checked in the natural direction of its movement, again and again it is forcibly prevented from peacefully ending its course, again and again diverted into fresh complications of expression, so that, tempered by all these restraints, it exerts its energy of expression to the uttermost unti lat last, bereft of all possibilities of natural pacification, it ends in confused, spasmodic movements, breaks off unappeased into the void or flows senselessly back upon itself.”

[Obviously Worringer is talking about something quite different, but I was thinking how the leaky lines that Joyelle refer to in Rose Garcia and Baseman’s work could be seen as being in conversation with the jaggediness of the medieval gothic.]

From Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper”:
“On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.
The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.
You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.
The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions–why, that is something like it.”

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Jessica Baran

    Hi Johannes,

    I’ve only recently discovered this blog, through a combination of Apostrophe Books, Nick Demske and HTML Giant. How fortuitous, then, that I should come upon this now! Fine art wallpaper is on my mind, as I just curated a current exhibit that focused on it (particularly the wallpaper of Robert Gober), along with having curated a previous show, where I included vintage 60s wallpaper to contextualize the artwork of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt (a second cousin of mine, a protege of Jack Smith, and a great innovator in kitsch art practices (and great lecturer on the subject) who’s been very minimally written about, save for his role as a gay activist and Stonewall Riot participant).

    There’s much that’s been written on the now several-decades-long use of wallpaper in fine art installations – starting with Warhol’s “cow” wallpaper (1966) – and its relationship to kitsch and the “art of the everyday”, a once, and still, revolutionary and materially-specific genre of art-making. It’s all about the “high” and “low” identity stuff – art’s analogue to “high” and “low” language in poetry – which has fluctuated in definition over time, the stuff of wallpaper being one of the more widely varied histories. Paper in general always ranks fairly low, along with anything bearing the trace of the domestic or the ability to be endlessly reproduced. What’s particularly interesting to me about wallpaper and this idea of the art of the everyday is its ability to saliently buck the system. What a rich contradiction that the very fabric and character of something so achingly banal should be extremism’s (or elitism’s) most powerful antidote — most feared by museums, institutions, and all the reigning heirarchies of culture. You would think the opposite — that screaming riots and flaming stakes would pose the greatest threat — but the embers of those kind of gestures inevitably get enshrined, where as something as seemingly numbingly innocuous as, say, wallpaper is very late to enter the sacred realm of art historical and market worth. This is also to say that wallpaper can be excessive, sure, in certain pattern motifs, but it’s also one of the most passive, submissive and mute of art-elements that is often, ultimately, covered and obscured by more dominant items, and relegated to the low tier of the “domestic”, “decorative”, and cheap cover-up.

    A museum curator recently visited the art space where I work and marveled at an artwork involving a spiral of household cleaning products (Jaime Pitarch’s “Theory of Evolution”) laid out on the gallery floor; she expressed a longing to be able to, simply, place artworks on the floor. It was one of those strange moments of realization about how, again, the most seemingly banal of gestures — placing “fine art” on the floor” — is still a kind of privilege. Granted, there are practical, conservation-related concerns that drive these type of restrictions at encyclopedic museums, but the comment still struck me.

    Anyway, I don’t know where this is going, but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that I’m enjoying your posts — and hooray for such unsung heroes as wallpaper!

  2. Camille Rose Garcia (yet another post on gothic ornament) - Montevidayo

    […] design wallpapers for their shows (according to the receptionist at the Jonathan Levine Gallery). And in the Worringer quote and the Yellow Wallpaper (see my post below), the extreme ornamentality generates a temporal quality – not so much a plot as a violence, it […]

  3. “… inside, a frame, and, now, sa. ccha. rine…”: Kim Hyesoon, Kara Walker and Kitsch Allegories - Montevidayo

    […] the symbol is organic, while the allegory is arbitrary, which makes it decorative and fanciful. We’re back in the gothic wallpapers I wrote about a while back. Allegory as an infected […]

  4. More Gaudy Possibilities: Gothic Ornaments vs Sincerity - Montevidayo

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