installation of a painting exhibition in a gallery covered in wallpaper
Installation view of Alec Egan’s The Study at Charles Moffett Gallery in Manhattan. Courtesy Charles Moffett Gallery.

Three Contemporary Artists Explore the Narrative Potential of Wallpaper

Alec Egan, Liz Nielsen, and Barrow Parke take cues from the decorative arts in their painting, photo, and multimedia practices.  

Fascinated with the visual and narrative potential of surface, a growing wave of contemporary artists are utilizing wallpaper in their work. For Los Angeles–based painter Alec Egan, there is poetry in the repetition of pattern. His recent solo exhibition, The Study, at New York’s Charles Moffet gallery featured paintings of still lives against floral wallpaper and sculpture immersed in a gallery covered in a similar floral wallpaper depicted in the paintings. “As a painter, I feel satisfied when [wallpapers] are contained within the frame of the painting, and as a sculptor, I am satisfied when they are constrained by the corners of a room.” 

For photographer Liz Nielsen, who has recently launched a wallpaper line with Schumacher, in addition to repetition, this sense of immersion is key, as well. “For me, wallpaper frames a room, creating an environment that envelops its objects and its inhabitants in its pattern,” she says. “Nothing is outside of the frame, and wallpaper holds time.”

Wallpaper holds time.

Liz Nielsen
Installation of a painting show in a gallery covered in wallpaper
Installation view of Alec Egan’s The Study at Charles Moffett Gallery in Manhattan. Courtesy Charles Moffett Gallery.

Multimedia husband and wife duo Barrow Parke considers wallpaper’s enveloping quality in service of their installation-based approach to painting. Their recent exhibition, Woman, at Tribeca’s JDJ Gallery, as well as the group show, Dangerous Pattern, explores how wallpaper engages the viewer through movement. “The paintings are demanding on a viewer, made with a focus on the smallest, repeated elements, such a single thread and a brushstroke following the thread,” Mark Barrow explains. “It requires a lot to parse the different layers of the paintings’ construction, and we have found that the immersive nature of wallpaper immediately helps setup how to read the paintings.”

The rising popularity of decorative elements in contemporary art has an undeniable impact on wallpaper’s foray into the white cube. As a piling number of artists shatter the so-called mundanity of craft, wallpaper has joined the realm of practices such as weaving, beading, or ceramics, which have long been kept outside the demands of the art market. Today, one can visit any MFA graduate show or a gallery that represents emerging artists and notice the prominence of works that take cues from the decorative arts.

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Barrow Parke exhibition installation at JDJ Gallery. Courtesy JDJ Gallery.

Egan has been working with wallpaper for a decade out of a desire to “build a house through my paintings,” he says, “Wallpaper is a device I am using for that construction.” The artist, however, notes the rising popularity in the medium, noting a  growing interest in “Matisse-like” paintings today. Egan finds inspiration in the floral-patterned wallpapers of Édouard Vuillard paintings and his own grandparents’ house. His exploration of the blossoming motifs taps into the notion of domestic nostalgia while playing with ideas of interiority and the everyday.

As a lens-based artist who makes photograms of still lives, Nielsen thinks that wallpaper is more linked to the photogram than one would think: “From Anna Atkins’s first photogram as a scientific document of a plant to patterns seen through a magnified microscope, we move from the unique print made by sunlight to a digital and duplicatable print.”

The nostalgic popularity of wallpaper among millennials has prompted many wallpaper manufacturers such as Farrow & Ball or Trove to expand their visual lexicon to include patterns that feel like grandma’s floral walls. After a 2019 collaboration with Google to make backdrops and screen savers for Google Meet, Nielsen received an invitation to develop a collection for Schumacher. She asked, “how [is] the subconscious mind affected by imagery that it is not focusing on?” On the production level, the artist has learned that the process would require some letting go, “which results in a looseness that allows creativity to unfold.” The collection came out of a close collaboration with the graphic design team and Schumacher’s wallpaper curators Barrie Benson and Chandra Johnson, who run the wallpaper company Peg Norriss, and helped decide colorways and scale.

Collaboration has long been at the core of Barrow Parke who has been working together since they met at RISD where Sarah Parke studied textile design and Mark Barrow, painting. Wallpaper here functions as the perfect medium to merge their backgrounds. “The ‘domestic’ has been important to our work, both as a concept and a logistical reality—our studio has always been in our apartment,” Barrow says.

They first introduced wallpaper into their practice two years ago for an exhibition at JDJ gallery’s Ice House in Garrison, New York.  “The Icehouse has a history tied to labor, class, and domesticity,” Barrow says about the space which was converted from a mixed-use agro-industrial compound living quarters. Wallpaper came out of an urge to emphasize what Parke says is “the convergence of these spheres in the exhibition and wallpaper seemed like the appropriate medium to address this, conceptually.” The multi-layered nature of their paintings, which includes woven and embroidered elements tops off this compiling of narrative through texture. Parke says, “After we first hung our paintings on top of wallpaper, we realized that the wallpaper was just an extension of this formal structure, just another layer.”

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