Patty Carroll: Death by Décor

© Patty Carroll ‘Cooking the Goose’ [detail] 2017 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise’

She is both victim and creator of her circumstance


Rosie was a riveter, emblematic of the women who stepped into the factories and shipyards of America when the men went off to fight the Second World War. For many it was an emancipating experience as they demonstrated that they were perfectly capable of tackling jobs traditionally consider men’s work. But when war ended and the men returned home, they wanted their jobs back. Thus began the mid-century social re-engineering of American womanhood.

In films and on television, in magazines and advertising, women were recast in hyper-feminine mould, and firmly placed back in the home. Bright colours and jazzy patterns were the order of the day, in female attire and interior décor, as the home became both an extension of her identity and its constraint. While the pre-war drudgery of housework was alleviated by a plethora of modern labour-saving gadgets, the rapidly expanding consumer society demanded a feverishly acquisitive materialism. To keep up, the amphetamines that had been doled out to soldiers to keep them alert and upbeat in time of war were repackaged in peacetime and marketed to housewives to ensure they stayed chipper and maintained their willowy silhouette. Meanwhile the trope of America’s ‘happy homemakers’ was embedded in the binary rhetoric of Cold War propaganda that cast Russian women as Communist factory slaves.

It is this frenetic consumerism and suffocating domesticity that the artist Patty Carroll evokes and satirises is her extended series of ‘Anonymous Women’. An artist long known for super-saturated colour images of Americana – from diners and hotdog stands to B-movie tales of mobsters and femmes fatale – her anonymous women retreat from the world to abandon themselves in obsessive pursuit of an ideal home. A home so ideal that they themselves become just another ornament.

Alasdair Foster

© Patty Carroll untitled 1995 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Heads’


Your multi-part series ‘Anonymous Women’ opens with ‘Heads’. How did this initial suite of work begin?

My husband and I had moved to London for a few years, and I was having a very hard time adjusting to British society. As a photographer and educator I use my maiden name, but in England no one knew me professionally and I was addressed as Mrs. Jones. It made me acutely aware that in more traditional societies, most women are still seen through the lens of their domestic status. It was a situation that led to a small identity crisis. My response was to begin a series of photographs depicting a female model whose identity was hidden behind various domestic objects. These were ‘unportraits’ – about being unseen. This anonymous woman represented the situation in which very many women find themselves.

© Patty Carroll untitled 1995 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Heads’

In ‘Anonymous Women: Draped’ the woman herself disappears completely under heavy folds of drapery. What prompted that development?

After we returned to the USA, we bought a 1950s ranch house and I set about transforming it into the home that, as a child, I had always wanted but never had. I had intended it to be an idealised mythical place, but it became somewhat of a time capsule filled with vintage furniture, fabrics, lamps and other décor. Initially I used the drapes from that house for this new series, later borrowing fabrics from friends who owned a custom drapery and décor business.

[Left] © Patty Carroll ‘Flowery’ 2003 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Draped’
[Right] © Patty Carroll ‘Royal’ 2003 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Draped’

What ideas were you drawing on here?

I was thinking how, in that mythical suburban universe where one’s drapes, walls and furniture all matched, the obsession with décor can be both a woman’s identity and her downfall. Drapery determines the interior space but also keeps out the wider world. The drapery in the pictures came to symbolise the duality of perfection and claustrophobia, identity and invisibility.

I was also influenced by early memories of the nuns that taught me in school. When nuns take the habit, they give up their previous identity and take on a new name. So, for example, Mary Smith might become Sister Angelica. The abundant fabric in which they are shrouded becomes their visual and psychological character.

© Patty Carroll from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Draped’
[Left] ‘Antenna’ 2004; [Centre] ‘Dotty’ 2010; [Right] ‘Chopped’ 2015

How do you negotiate the interplay of humour and darkness in your work?

I am not sure how to answer this… All I can say is that I grew up in a house where you had to have a sense of humour, or you would crumble. My mother taught me to laugh at tragedies, at myself, and keep on going. That attitude has found its way into my pictures. I see life as an endless parade of bizarre and wonderful jokes that arise from relentless sorrow. If someone enjoys the beauty, colour, or silliness in my pictures, I hope that they will perhaps stay to consider the darker issues beneath.

I do want my pictures to appeal to more than just the art crowd. Blending darkness in content with lightness in mood helps me connect with a more general audience.

© Patty Carroll ‘Accessoriesy’ 2016 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Reconstructed’

In ‘Anonymous Women: Reconstructed’ the female figure is again disappearing, this time into an excess of domestic paraphernalia. How are your ideas developing here?

We live in a world of excessive consumption, and everyone seems to have more and more stuff that is special to them. I wanted to explore this obsession with possessions and the way they have come to define our personalities. Here, the anonymous woman is camouflaged but also swamped by her own obsession with material perfection; she is both victim and creator of her circumstance.

Here, the female figure has also lost her humanity and become a mannequin.

Mannequins are idealised forms and yet have no identity in themselves. When creating these scenarios, we often use parts from a variety of different mannequins to create our ‘woman’ with just the right configuration. But there is also a practical reason. The sets take a long time to arrange, and we couldn’t have someone sit for hours while we piled stuff into the picture.

[Left] © Patty Carroll ‘Lighty’ 2016 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Reconstructed’
[Right] © Patty Carroll ‘Platey’ 2016 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Reconstructed’

There is a strong mid-century-modern feel to these series. What draws you to that aesthetic and context for your artmaking?

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago provided the basis of all of my work, and I am continuously trying to come to terms with it. I grew up when suburban life was idealised: the home was a place of perfection and harmony, free from harsh realities of the city, without crime or messy interiors, where everyone’s drapes matched the sofa, where people were normal, and no one had dark little secrets. A time when ‘a woman’s place was in the home’.

It is these myths of claustrophobic perfection that my photographs seek to debunk, critique and satirise.

© Patty Carroll ‘Absinthe Absent’ 2021 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise’

The final part of ‘Anonymous Women’ is called ‘Domestic Demise’. What has happened here?

Here the woman has become the victim of a domestic disaster. Her obsessions and possessions have finally overwhelmed her. Her perfect home has become a tragic stage. The scenes of her untimely end are loosely inspired by a variety of sources including film noir, mystery thrillers, Victorian novels, and the board game Clue [also known as Cluedo outside the USA], where a murder occurs in one of five rooms of an up-market house: dining room, kitchen, hall, conservatory, or library.

You have referred to your studio as your “playhouse”, combining the ideas of playfulness and performance. In making your work, how much develops in the flow of playing with materials, and how much is pre-visualised like a theatrical set?

Sometimes I begin with a very loose sketch, but more often there is simply an idea and a colour or fabric design that starts the whole process. We figure the rest out as we go along. We pull together a bunch of stuff to see what works with what, then select and arrange, then go shopping for more stuff, then rearrange… and repeat! It is all in the process.

I work with one or two assistants, and we consider, discuss and rearrange as we go, arguing, laughing, pursuing or rejecting ideas on the fly. My garage is full of bins containing fabric, props, furniture and so on, which we use, reuse and then get rid of to make room for yet more stuff.

[Left] © Patty Carroll ‘Plasticity’ 2018 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise’
[Right] © Patty Carroll ‘Guns and Roses’ 2021 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise’

You set your images in the post-WWII era when there was a particular emphasis in the West on women and homemaking, domestic technologies and consumerism. How do you find your images speak to different generations and, indeed, different genders?

Even though I reference a former time, I think many of these issues are the same now. Women are nest builders by instinct. In whatever form that takes, we still have many of the same issues. Since the pandemic started, I have found my work taking on new meanings because now we are all stuck at home. I think the ideas I have about home and identity became clearer during the lockdown. Everyone was looking at their home in a new way, either out of necessity for work or school, or just realising it was time to declutter or at least put some new pictures on the wall.

[Left] © Patty Carroll ‘Laundered’ 2017 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise’
[Right] © Patty Carroll ‘Empress’ 2010 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Draped’

What is the most surprising response you have had to your work?

At one of my exhibitions in China, there was an opening ceremony, which is typical of Chinese protocol. After the ribbon cutting, I was standing on the stage with the mayor of the city, the exhibition curator and various dignitaries, when a middle-aged lady from the audience leapt up on the stage and said very loudly “This is the best thing I have seen about women ever!” (…or something like that – she spoke in Chinese, which was then translated for me). The curator said this was highly unusual – that Chinese women are never usually that outspoken – so I guess it was a big moment for everyone!

© Patty Carroll ‘Doris Hummingbirds’ 2015 from the series ‘Flora and Fauxna’

The final body of work I would like to discuss is ‘Flora and Fauxna’? As with your previous works, these are chaotically sumptuous images. What are you exploring in this new work?

In 2016, I was awarded an artist residency in Kansas City with a wonderful studio. I decided to make still-life pictures in that studio, as this would require less space. Meanwhile, I continued to make the ‘Anonymous Women’ works in my studio back in Chicago, travelling the eight-hour drive back and forth.

In Kansas, I would wake up every morning to birds singing in the trees outside my bedroom window. I would hear them but not see them until they flew around. The trees are their homes, and the birds, like my anonymous women, are camouflaged within them. What started as a lark extending my ideas to include the local fauna, became an entire series. And, when exhibited, this includes an installation in which I display arrangements of the same ceramic birds, floral fabrics, faux flowers and foliage.

[Left] © Patty Carroll ‘Crows’ 2015 from the series ‘Flora and Fauxna’
[Right] © Patty Carroll ‘Red Parrots’ 2015 from the series ‘Flora and Fauxna’

These photographs play with the idea of nestbuilding, combining elements from human homemaking with ceramic birds that refer both to nesting and to a Nature that has been tamed, where the wild is no longer threatening. The camouflage and security of the bird’s home suggest the nesting instincts of women whose domestic domain is both a sanctuary and an obsession.

Unlike traditional still-life images, these photographs show no horizon line, dramatic lighting or the symbols of death and decay associated with vanitas paintings. Instead, they celebrate home, colour, flowers, and birds, animals who are believed in many cultures to be messengers between heaven and earth.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making this work? What has photography taught you?

I used to think that photography would take me places I would never otherwise visit. I still think that. But these two series have been more about exploring internal places; places that I perhaps share with many other women – a sense of sharing that makes me very happy. And because of it, I no longer rely on a male perspective on the world.

© Patty Carroll ‘Red Bed – peeking into the quarantine life’ 2020 from the series ‘Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise’

Biographical Notes

Patty Carroll was born in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, in 1946. She has a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana (1968) and a master’s degree in photography from Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago (1972). Since graduating, she has taught photography at university level on a continuing basis at a number of institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Royal College of Art in London. Since 1971, she has shown extensively across the US and in Europe, Asia and Central America in well over three hundred exhibitions. Her photographs have won numerous awards including the Prix de la Photo Gold Award (2011), San Francisco International Photography Exhibition Gold Medal (2014); and the Arte Laguna Prize, Venice (2011, 2014, 2018). She was named in Photolucida’s Top 50 in 2014 and again in 2017. From 2016 to 2021 she was artist in residence at Studios Inc. in Kansas City.

Her work is held in many prestigious public and private collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; Biblioteque Nationale, Paris; the California Museum of Photography, Riverside; the Library of Congress, Washington DC; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Her work features in six monographs: ‘Spirited Visions’ with James Yood [University of Illinois Press, 1992]; ‘Culture is Everywhere’ with Victor Margolin [Prestel, 2002]; ‘Living the Life: The World of Elvis Tribute Artists’ [Verve Editions, 2005]; ‘Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America’ with Bruce Kraig [AltaMira Press, 2012]; ‘Anonymous Women’ [Daylight Books, 2017]; and ‘Anonymous Women: Domestic Demise’ [Aint-Bad Books, 2020]. Patty Carroll lives and works in Chicago.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.