The Art Capades

If the decorative arts haven’t always received their critical due, authors at least have appreciated the lead role they can play in life and psyche. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story of middle-class female oppression, is one of the better-known examples of design as accomplice. Published in 1899, and written by a feminist who had been diagnosed as an “hysteric” and discouraged from writing as part of her “cure,” the story is narrated by a wife who has been confined mostly to the upstairs room of a country house that is covered with a wallpaper that feels like an aggressor and a prison. Although the “smouldering unclean yellow” paper is never described in objective detail, at least one literary critic has suggested that the author had the organic patterns of Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris in mind.

Following England’s Great Exhibition of 1851, roundly derided as hideous by the official aesthetes of the period, Morris became an influential figure in a reformation based in part on his Socialist and naturalist ideals. Among other things, he encouraged his fellow craftsmen to disguise the pattern repetition of machine-made papers. Gilman’s invalid complains that the images on her paper tormentor are impossible to reason or follow, but it doesn’t really matter if Morris was the culprit. As women’s lib began to set seed, any patterns associated with home life — wall, plate, and dress — might have become synonymous with female oppression.

I don’t know if Risa Puleo, curator of The Yellow Wallpaper, a two-artist show that opened at Unit B last weekend, is invoking the more ominous implications of Gilman’s story. San Antonian Karen Mahaffy’s work feels more contemplative than suffocating. In two video installations and a handful of framed paper works, Mahaffy presents ornate patterns as an omnipresent, but not foreboding, code. Most of her lines are curvaceous, whether it’s a finely detailed drawing of stylized wallpaper flowers, or the shadow of a Queen Anne-style chair and a parlor table. The videos flicker with pleasant shadows and light; a wine bottle and other pleasant trappings fade and reappear. Her delicate and precise cut-paper drawings create spaces that feel like the contemporary Southtown inhabited by many local artists — more Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own than prison. The larger, wall-projected video could be more tightly displayed, but the way sun seems to dapple the room through a tree and window is lovely. Mahaffy titled her set In Praise of Shadow, and it feels like the long shadow of a day well-spent. The framed black-on-black cut-outs of what looks like a chandelier are especially beautiful — nighttime in the garden of good.

In the show’s other half, Future Perfect by Erin Curtis, brute modern structures jut out of rich green foliage, while yellow lines run across the images like survey markers or stained-glass leading indifferent to the underlying images. If these mixed-media and found-photo paintings are meant to be a critique of masculine concrete forced onto natural, more feminine, forms (and I’m not saying they are; just that the show’s overall title suggests that), for me it fails. The hard lines, curved or right angles, of the architecture and the foliage’s unconfined riot bring out each other’s best features. In a nice counterpoint, two of the gallery walls are lined with a faded and peeling blue-and-white paper in an interlocking geometric pattern that Morris’s Neoclassical predecessors might have approved.

Textile patterns also played a key role in a Contemporary Art Month exhibit that closed at Cactus Bra on Saturday — Rhonda Kuhlman’s Did You Just See What I Saw? In her beautifully rendered ink drawings, classic flock wallpaper patterns give way to birds, bunnies, toads, boughs of berries, dandelion puffs, and Bambi sporting a full rack and a gold script necklace (’80s mall girl more than hip-hop bling). A fairy-tale quality gives these girly images their power. They’re filled with our hopes and fears, and rife with our complicated relationship with nature: idolatry, domination, surrender. Will our richly facilitated creature-comfort life give way to actual creatures, or will all of nature be taxidermied to our specifications?

As the press release promised, Saturday’s closing exhibition featured a Mexican-style mirrored plaster column that was three parts tiered wedding cake, two parts UFO, and five parts Grimm — topping out in an enormous flower scepter. Honestly, I’m not sure it tied in visually with the drawings, but each is so fine on its own that I was just grateful for the opportunity to experience them.

Because the notion of women’s craft in contemporary art has been raised in recent high-profile gallery and museum shows, I feel like we’ve got to at least acknowledge it here. But in these two artists’ hands, the designs that fill their “walls” don’t feel like personal, subjective tools — maybe simply because they’re working in media that aren’t specifically associated with women. But I like to think it’s because the elements are presented dispassiontately and critically — as art, not craft. Yet, they’re also simply gorgeous, and any room would be more lovely for their presence. As Morris once wrote, “Is it not better to be reminded however simply of the close vine trellises which keep out the sun ... than having to count day after day a few sham-real houghs and flowers, casting sham-real shadows on your walls, with little hint of any-thing beyond Covent Garden in them?”

The Yellow Wallpaper
1-5 pm Sat & by appt.
Through Sep 7
Unit B (gallery)
500 Stieren

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.