On wallpaper + immortality

Multimedia artist Laura Shill comes to Breckenridge March 28 to May 19, 2019 to exhibit a collection of her latest work, including a new piece, “Inedible Feast,” at the public Gallery@OMH on Main Street.

Among the works she is known for is her “Hidden Mothers” series, which explores a strange phenomenon of photography’s tintype era—often, portraits of babies had invisible mothers holding them, either cropped out by the frame, or deliberately obscured behind the baby with fabric draped over their heads. Later, in her “Absent Lover” series, she created collages by photographing Harlequin romance novel covers and careful erasing one of the two figures locked in a passionate embrace.

“A lot of my graduate research was about the role of photographs in helping construct a version of the self,” said Shill, who earned her MFA at the University of Boulder in 2012 and has exhibited nationally and internationally since, including at the Venice Biennale and Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. “You can perform an identity for the camera and it’s often an aspirational performance—not who you are exactly but who you’d like to be seen as,” she explained.

Selfies deconstructed
That concept finds its apotheosis in the upcoming exhibition, which will feature several works, among them “Separation Perfected,” a series of 36 plaster-cast arms rising out of a pedestal, each grasping a selfie-stick with a mirrored acrylic cell phone reproduction, that comes together to form the shape of an altar. “When the viewer stands before the work it breaks them into 36 pieces, reflected back to themselves but fragmented,” she said.

“I think a lot about the intimate relationship I have with my phone,” Shill explained. “It’s last thing I touch before bed, and the first thing I touch in the morning. It knows all the photos I take, even the ones I wouldn’t show to anyone. If I leave for work in the morning and leave my phone behind, it’s like a phantom limb—I have anxiety being separated from it. I’m really interested in that relationship we have with these devices and how that is changing our species.”

Shill’s new work, “Inedible Feast,” takes that concept a step further by creating a fantastic feast of plastic food on a banquet table upstairs in the historic building that houses the gallery, in a room that once served as a gathering space for the Masons.

The idea references Baroque paintings of feasts, which depict death and decay as metaphors for humanity’s impermanence. By creating the feast in plastic, Shill does the opposite—she comments on our desire to be immortal, which visitors will play out through the inevitable selfie-making-and sending that happens when they encounter the piece. Those who use emojis in their text messaging—and particularly those versed in “sexting,” where erotic emoji fruits like phallic eggplants are used to negotiate intimacy—will recognize those cartoon symbols, realized in plastic objects as part of the feast.

Victorian wallpaper
The room housing the feast will be hung with a reproduction of ornate, Victorian-era wallpaper sourced from a local historic structure—a pairing that was the brainchild of Nicole Dial-Kay, director of exhibitions and special projects for Breckenridge Creative Arts. “If you look at Laura’s work, there is an aesthetic of excess,” she said. “There’s a deceptive prettiness to the whole thing— curlicues, ornamentation, and intricate details.” For Dial-Kay, it evoked the embellishments popular with Victorian Breckenridge’s well-heeled residents, when domestic gathering spaces like the parlor and dining room would be hung with ornate wallpapers projecting images of culture and wealth.

The wallpaper sample on which the reproduction is based came from a collection housed at the Dr. Sandra F. Pritchard Mather Archives in the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center, which catalogs, describes, and preserves archival material collected by Summit Historical Society and Breckenridge Heritage Alliance (BHA).

“The idea for the wallpaper collection was inspired by Robin Theobald,” said Kris Ann Knish, BHA archivist and collections manager. While partnering with the Town of Breckenridge to restore his childhood home—the 1882 Barney Ford house that would eventually become a museum honoring the life and work of the prominent African-American businessman and civil rights activist— several layers of wallpaper were discovered and preserved, she explained. Robin’s wife Patty took a sample to a company that specializes in recreating historic wallpapers, and had a reproduction made for the museum’s front entrance.

That wallpaper, she admits, probably dates to a later period than when Barney Ford was living in the house. “From what I understand, the Theobalds did find the original wallpaper,” Knish said. “It consists of about five colors and was so ornately patterned it was going to be too costly to reproduce. It has garlands and scrolls and metallic golds and metallic greens.”

Fabricating Victorian wallpaper is an art in and of itself, since early Victorian wallpapers were created by hand-blocks, she explained. To make a reproduction, a master drawing is made from the original pattern, and separations are cut for each color, to be screened in layers. “These companies are trying to be as authentic as possible,” Knish said.

Upon seeing the exhibit, she hopes more local residents will contribute wallpaper samples they discover in the walls of their homes or businesses, whether they date to the Victorian era or the 1970’s, so the collection becomes a resource “for homeowners and business owners looking to replicate the historic character of a room, or designers looking for inspiration.”

Art of illusion
Another reason Dial-Kay decided to pair the Victorian wallpaper with Shill’s work was the fact that Shill, too, has created wallpaper. “The wallpaper I made in the past looks like it would be at home in a Victorian, ornate setting,” Shill admitted, “but if you look closely it’s a subversive image that would have made the Victorians squirm.”

Shill’s feast will similarly deceive. “It’s all sort of perfectly placed and inviting,” Dial-Kay noted. “That’s the whole idea of a feast—you want it, you want to eat.” But you can’t, because it’s made of plastic.

“I think if an alien species discovered our species through our Instagram feeds, they would see us out in nature, eating great food, with our friends, and we are so happy,” Shill said. “In reality it’s really the opposite—we are anxious; we feel isolated; we don’t have a lot of hope for the future—but the thing we reflect back through our images is sort of the opposite of that. I’m interested in the notion of food that doesn’t nourish you, so I’m presenting a feast you can’t eat, and hands that don’t touch you back.”

That said, she anticipates it to be “a visually exciting and fun show,” made with a lot of hands-on help. People can interact with the exhibit by taking photos and sharing them. The idea to create an “Instagrammable” exhibit first occurred to her in 2015 when she showed her wallpaper. “It was just wallpaper on the wall; it didn’t occur to me that this will be the backdrop for 100 selfies. What else do you do anywhere but make a selfie?” she asked.

It’s a human desire to put our best face forward—whether wealthy Victorians reflecting taste and status through home décor, or the curated images we present online. It’s just that today, in the moment of time Shill’s latest body of work explores, “it has sort of turned the volume up to 11,” she said. “It’s far more instant—we can project these things literally across the world to a really large audience of essentially strangers.”

“I’m not trying say cell phones are evil—I’m trying to look at it almost like a scientist would look at the way you would look at the impacts of a thing,” she said. “Cell phones allow us to travel in time and space in ways that separate us from our physical realities.”

Her Breckenridge work promises to be a study in contrasts—at the same time a commentary on modern self-image as it is a colorful playroom of fantastic creations—creating the conditions for “a beautiful moment” where people stand next to her work and make a selfie. “In general I like to not give guidelines, or instructions. I think it’s more interesting when people make choices regarding it,” she said. “That becomes more interesting than the work itself.”

Laura Shill // lauraleeshill.com
Gallery@OMH // 136 S. Main St., Breckenridge
Breckenridge Heritage Alliance // breckheritage.com
Dr. Sandra F. Pritchard Mather Archives // matherarchives.com

Photos courtesy of Laura Shill