What is an artist to do when a creative concept is so colossal that it can’t be confined to a single canvas, wall or entire room? She designs a house with her own set of rules.
Meet Cornelia Oliver, a painter and the creative force behind KORNELIAHAUS: Home, an evocative 360-degree art experience. The four-roomed installation blends flat canvas panels with furniture, textiles, found objects and more. Her boldly colored ornate painting-in-the-round features 137 stretched canvas and floor panels, and forms the illusion of a home complete with kitchen, parlor, bedroom and library. Oliver’s space beckons viewers to step inside, interact with, and become part of the art.
Just as when one enters the home of another, curiosity will prevail. Viewers have the ability and are encouraged to look around in detail. Oliver hopes that by setting this simultaneously familiar and mysterious environment, viewers will personally connect with and react to the space.
Oliver describes, “The piece delves into interior design, performance art, and set design, but dysfunctionally so, as the materiality and architecture disallow for either true privacy or protection.” KORNELIAHAUS: Home appears to be a domestic space, but reminds us that it is merely an illusion as it has no ceiling and no true doors.
Initial Inspiration: Laying Foundations
While working towards her Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the Southwestern United States, Oliver was somewhat limited by her small studio space. Her initial concept started as a multi-panel piece entitled “Luminaries” that featured females aggressively gazing the viewer, creating a forcible interaction. “The idea of having women stare at you and make the viewer the object is something that I found to be attractive and empowering,” explains Oliver.
When others viewed the work, “They all wanted to know what the narrative was,“ explains Oliver, “and I was upset by the fact that people were trying to read a story instead of engaging with the space.” As a result, she removed the women from the painting. “What took ten months to build took ten hours to erase,” she reflects. “In having the viewer become the figurative element, I had to eliminate the figures in the painting – it couldn’t be both.”
To illicit the reaction she wanted, Oliver surmised that she needed to focus on the environment. Her goal became to create a backdrop, a theater stage, architectural mockup, and a design space for the spectator to inhabit. The grand idea for KORNELIAHAUS: Home was born.
The House that Cornelia Built
Oliver expanded the work by more than 100 canvases and floor panels to add to the realism of the house, create a flow from room to room, and to make the exhibition transportable. Oliver explains, “I wanted to have continuity and flow between real and painted, and the perceived and the three dimensional, to believably push the spectator into the far reaches of the painting itself.”
Once the work took shape, Oliver discovered that she could no longer work as organically as she had hoped. She created blueprints and commissioned studio assistants to help her in realizing the project. The varying skill sets of the assistants included photography, painting, metal work, ceramics, woodworking, printmaking and electronic art, adding even greater depth and variety of the piece. In looking at this as a faux domestic interior, she also was forced to look at design and her personal history, and curate an exhibition within an exhibition.
“I suddenly transitioned from the artist of record to architect, designer, scenic painter, lawyer, CPA, project manager, public relations coordinator, curator, on-site therapist, advocate, mom, and artistic trainer. It was exhausting, but informative wearing so many hats at once,” she shares.
Oliver’s opus took four long and dedicated years from start to finish. Oliver launched a campaign called “Hope in a Box.”  Through fundraising, 92 backers pledged $10,204 to help launch the initial phase of the project. Realizing the monumental work, however, spanned far beyond this initial amount.
Welcome and Do Come In
KORNELIAHAUS: Home premiered in May 2015 at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Upon entering, viewers experience bold colors, highly patterned wallpapers, ornate décor and everyday objects such as furniture, fluffy rugs, a coat rack and the painted representation of house pets. All of these were built in perspective to extend boundaries and push the viewer beyond the surface of the painting itself.
Oliver has married New Orleans interiors with the opulence and patterns of Moroccan color, Art Nouveau graphic quality and geometry, contemporary design elements, and Spanish Colonial elegance. Her sense of rhythm, layered colors and patterns create profundity on an otherwise flat and undistinguished surface.
A tremendous element of KORNELIAHAUS: Home’s success is the use of trompe l’oeil to “fool the eye” of the viewer. Oliver enlarges the space while questioning boundaries by creating illusionistic false rooms and hallways, and by skillfully blending the second and third dimensions through the juxtaposition of tactile objects and flat surfaces. “My largest desire was to build a three-dimensional painting space that would create tension by “viewing” the viewer, to create a phenomenological moment within a painting space, and forcibly ask for subtle introspection,” shares Oliver.
Maxine Marks, PhD student with the University of New Mexico writes, “Personal ephemera that one would cherish in their own home are found here: snapshots, favorite books, framed college degrees, fine art. Yet, the uniqueness of somebody else’s treasured objects is minimized and normalized by the mundane stack of towels in the bathroom and toiletries on the shelf. The viewer is in somebody else’s house, and is meant to see it and to see her.”
Now a modular piece, KORNELIAHAUS: Home is built to travel and is available for exhibition.
Oliver closes, “In this monumental work, I hope to convey a sense of familiar space, of permanence, and of individuality through implied location. I surround the spectator-participant with a fully formed world, a believable moment, my moment. I hope to stimulate wonder within this moment, and by doing so, make my mark upon the art world.”
About Cornelia Oliver
A native of north Florida, Cornelia Oliver discovered visual arts as a child in the form of children’s book illustrations. Appreciating the power to transport the viewer into a new world, Oliver desired to take people on that same kind of journey.
Her art is a personal expression and is inspired by her childhood, travels, and people whom have touched and shaped her life. The patterns, textures and colors Oliver has experienced in the United States, Europe and South America, have a lasting influence on her art.
In 2015 she received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico and, in May of that same year, premiered KORNELIAHAUS: Home. The installation is available for exhibition; please contact the artist for details.
Oliver’s work can be viewed online at KORNELIAHAUS.com