In her series “Collapse and Calamity,” photographer Patty Carroll stages exquisite scenes of death by interior design.
Home is the ultimate escape from the pressures of daily life, a private getaway where we can unwind and be our true selves. But it’s not always that simple. At a time when people are practicing social isolation in a Sisyphean attempt to stanch the exponential spread of COVID-19 across the United States, homes have been transformed into offices, schools, restaurants, and gyms — spaces that are constricting, even claustrophobic, in their limitations.
In challenging times, humor can be the best medicine. A little levity goes a long way when the weight of the world sends us climbing the walls. In the world of American photographer Patty Carroll those walls bite back is a series of Baroque horrors taken from the on-going series, “Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise.” Her exhibition, Collapse and Calamity, presents delightfully decadent scenes of death that come about in an ill-fated quest to create the “perfect home.”
Inspired in part by the board game “Clue,” Carroll crafts melodramatic moments of domesticity gone awry. Every corner of the home becomes suspect, the setting for a disaster so luxurious it’s hard to do anything but laugh. Nestled deep in the desire for an opulent oasis are the very seeds of demise. “The perfect home is a blessing, a joy, and a burden that you want to have this thing and it’s never going to be perfect but you keep trying,” says Carroll, who came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, at a time when the consumerist lifestyle was being perfectly crystallized.
“Mid-century design is almost mythical in its idea about perfection. It was a time of hope. It all happened after the big war and everyone was becoming prosperous. It was a magical, glamorous time. People dressed up for dinner in their perfect homes where the drapes matched the wallpaper and the sofa. My mother’s house was never that good; it wasn’t even close. Later on you tell yourself, ‘I’m going to give myself the perfect life I never had.’”
Miss Carroll in the Studio with the Curtain Rod
Like a classic noir thriller, the path to “Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise” was written in the stars. It all began in 1977, when Carroll purchase a small cottage in Michigan City, Indiana, which she sold after she got married. After they divorced, she met a man at a dinner party in Chicago. As fate would have it, he had purchased the cottage from the people Carroll had sold it to. “Well, then I had to marry him. I had to get my cottage back,” she says with a laugh.
Happily wed, the couple tried to make the cottage their home but it was simply to small. They soon found 1950s ranch house with a complete pink kitchen still intact. “I knew everyone who saw it thought it was a $50,000 renovation project and I was looking t it like, ‘That’s my ideal house I never got to have as a kid!’ I needed to restore the house to its former glory,” Carroll says of the obsession that lead her to gain intimate knowledge of estate sales, thrift stores, fabric shops, and flea markets.
At the same time, Carroll was making pictures of movie sets for movies that never existed. One day, she put the mannequin behind the curtains instead of in front of them and inspiration struck. Without identities, these “Anonymous Women” became visual metaphors of the femme experience. Women’s work, as it’s pejoratively known, has long applied to housework. Though it’s unpaid labor, the expectation of professionalism weights heavily upon those who seek to express their creativity through the domestic arts. In Carroll’s photographs, the results are a double-edged sword.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Over the past year, Carroll has made a wide array of new works, some inspired by current events like the 2020 election. But not every image begins with a concept; some start with a fabric or a prop. For Eden, a symphony of green, orange, and red plants, flowers, and fruits, Carroll developed the picture around a small garden table and set of chairs she purchased at an estate sale. It had been sitting in the garage for the past year, and she was determined to put it to use.
“We set it up and realized it has to be a picture about a woman gardening in a conservatory and it went from that,” she says. “Then I found fabrics that went together and we looked at the whole thing. I said, ‘It needs something with some punch to it, it’s too sweet.’ We decided it needed snakes.”
Here, the bite of an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil leads to her untimely end — an apt metaphor for what so many are discovering this year. As the United Nations reports, the pandemic has exposed how deeply entrenched social, political, and economic inequalities are impacting women in multiple spheres. As the second wave of COVID reaches catastrophic heights, with a record breaking one person dying per minute as of November 20, a time of reckoning has come.
While some continue to ignore the crisis, millions remained tucked away inside their homes, continuing to practice social distancing with no sense of when the nightmare will end. Now more than ever, humor can help people lift people up and restore the feelings of peace and joy that have been stripped from them.
“My mother had a great sarcastic sense of humor, which is where I am sure I get all of this,” Carroll says. “When bad things would happen we would have to laugh about them. That’s how we got through every difficult situation in our family.”
Carroll’s scenes of marvelous mayhem evoke the words of Nobel Prize winning author André Gide, who wrote, "Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Patty Carroll: Collapse and Calamity
The exhibition is on view through December 31, 2020
Catherine Couturier Gallery, 2635 Colquitt Street
Houston, TX 77098, USA