OGDEN, Utah — In my seventh grade English class during a lesson on The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, my teacher crept around the room clawing at the walls. She was eerily good at embodying the protagonist of the late-19th century short story, who is imprisoned by her physician husband and haunted by visions of a shadowy woman in the wallpaper.
I spent the rest of the school year enamored with and vaguely scared of my teacher; she was a woman who behaved oddly, a transgressive force in my nascent grappling with queer identity.
Elizabeth Alexander’s “I Cry at Nothing, and Cry Most of the Time” (2021), the first work in Ideal Home at the nonprofit space Ogden Contemporary Arts, draws its title from a line in The Yellow Wallpaper. The reference could’ve seemed glib — the piece is made from wallpaper scraps collaged atop cast-paper replicas of household objects — but the work is as unsettling as the story.
Repeated images of tropical plants and animals form a spidery thicket around a protrusion that looks like a dislocated joint. Above it, a relief resembling a fountain drips with fringe that gently stirs. It’s as though something — or someone — is about to crack out of this paper cocoon.
Ideal Home, which also features vibrant floral compositions by Kasey Lou Lindley, captures the disorientation of a moment in which environmental crises have pierced the domestic sphere. It’s a contemporary angle on domestic horror — a house breached and externalized — but there are elemental and sublime forces at play, too.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is a double-sided installation by Alexander titled “All Things Bright & Beautiful” from 2020. The artist lives in South Carolina, which was “either on fire or underwater” as she started the artwork, according to a statement.
More hollow paper casts of household objects (chairs, lighting fixtures, a sink) form vertical topographies on either side of a wall, referencing tangles of debris from the overlapping catastrophes. One side is enrobed in vibrant wallpaper bits, the other is painted matte black and dusted with fragments of gold tinsel.
The installation, along with Alexander’s 20-foot-long tapestry made from wallpaper cutouts on a nearby wall, evokes startling but increasingly prevalent imagery of houses in cross-section after a natural disaster. The artist poses questions that swing between metaphor and reality like never before. What happens to American notions of domestic perfection when our walls won’t stay up? What treasures or terrors were hiding in our now-exposed foundations?
On the second floor of the space, Lindley tends to an individually actionable corner of the climate crisis in her poignant series Future Gardens (2022). A resident of Salt Lake City, the artist studied native plants that might sustainably replace the drought-ridden city’s impeccably manicured lawns. She depicts these water-conserving flora (along with similar foliage from elsewhere) in watercolor paintings, digital collages, and an immersive video installation.
The works are as cheerful and sincere as Matisse cutouts, but they’re far from simplistic: Lindley flexes serious compositional muscle as stems, leaves, and blossoms proliferate and layer. Her digital collages come alive in the show’s final room, a four-channel video set to a soundtrack of children playing and humming in a garden.
As I lounged on a pillow among Lindley’s projections, another domesticity-themed exhibition came to mind: Womanhouse, the influential feminist art installation and performance space that occupied a dilapidated Los Angeles mansion for one wild month in 1972.
Judy Chicago recently organized a New Mexico-based sequel to the collaborative work in honor of its 50th anniversary, with an accompanying exhibition of photography from the original installation. An image of Faith Wilding’s “Crocheted Environment” was particularly striking, with its trippy web of acrylic yarn and sisal rope that forms a literal and conceptual snare.
Kelly Carper, the Ogden-based curator of Ideal Home, similarly balances abstraction, figuration and strange materiality to examine the vessels that surround us. But while Womanhouse largely explored interiority and confinement, Ideal Home must inevitably study the swiftly multiplying cracks in the walls. For better and worse, our world is turning inside out.
Ideal Home continues at Ogden Contemporary Arts (455 25th Street, Ogden, Utah) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Kelly Carper.