Jessica Campbell Cuts a Rug: Collage and Comics @ MCA Chicago
Comic genius Jessica Campbell's largest show of collaged carpet works, with immersive installations and curious connotations, is currently dropping jaws at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. These shaggy artworks are soaked in mashed-up stories best revealed by the artist herself.
Kristin Farr: Tell me about your show at the MCA.
Jessica Campbell: There are two gallery spaces: in the first, there is a large mural made out of carpet. The form of this mural is based on Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel, an early fourteenth-century church in Padua, Italy that chronicles the life of Jesus through a series of narrative panels. The major difference between this installation and the Scrovegni Chapel, aside from the material choice, is that the chapel was meant to act as a mnemonic device for worshipers; it depicts a known story. The narrative I've used in my installation is an irreconcilable hybrid of my own biography and that of Emily Carr.
Emily Carr was an early twentieth-century modernist painter from Victoria, BC in Canada, where I also grew up. She is the most famous artist from my hometown and her work is extremely ubiquitous there. She was affiliated with the Group of Seven—a group of landscape painters whose work was central in the construction of Canadian national identity—but her work differed from theirs in a few significant ways: she painted the west coast, where they predominantly painted Ontario; she was twenty or so years older than the other members; she was a woman; and, significantly, much of her work included indigenous cultural production, like totem poles, in addition to landscape. In many ways, she revered indigenous culture, art, and design, but she also had a very paternalistic and colonial attitude.
I wanted to engage her life and work as my subject because it's something that feels very closely intertwined with my own life, and her work feels symbolic of the Pacific Northwest, which is a place I feel deeply homesick for, while I also find many aspects of her life and work problematic.
The Carr Chapel installation very directly references my biographies and hers. The second room features a series of drawings and a large carpet. The carpet reproduces nude artworks that appeared in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1933 entitled A Century of Progress, which was a component of the World's Fair of that year. Emily Carr came to Chicago only once, the last major trip of her life, specifically to see this show. However, she miscalculated and arrived the day after the exhibition closed. That disappointment, combined with her own status as a woman painter, under-recognized in her lifetime, and a Victorian prude who would not paint from nude models, was something I wanted to ruminate on. The drawings reproduce her diary cartoons that were never published.
Is The Welcome Man based on personal experience? Something similar happened to me as a kid.
Yes, this is based on a specific incident of sitting with a friend on a dock, speaking with an older man whose penis slipped out of his shorts. At that moment, I thought about how embarrassing it must be for him and how it must have been accidental, but, in retrospect, I have no idea whether or not this was an intentional action. This is something that happened to me multiple times as a young person, between the ages of 10 and 15-ish, but does not happen to me now. Or perhaps it does, and I just don't remember it because it is not as shocking? I had a man masturbate “at me” while crossing the street last year in Chicago, which was memorable and definitely intentional on his part.
So gross. Is there one panel in the show that's everyone's favorite?
One that has been mentioned to me several times is Victoria Inner Harbour, a depiction of the inner harbor from Victoria, British Columbia, which is a part of town that was built up substantially during Emily Carr's lifetime. Central to this depiction of an otherwise very picturesque vantage, often shown in advertisements for the city, is my first substantial teen break up, when my high school boyfriend dumped me at a chain restaurant and then made me pay for dinner. When I went home that night, I also found my childhood cat in the process of dying and he did, in fact, die that night! So, it was a terrible day, all around.
I think that people react to that image because the figures, as with many of my figures, are cartoonish and brightly colored, but the scene is one of emotional turmoil. There's a kind of productive contradiction between the material, style and what is being depicted.
Resurrection depicts one of the actual gallery rooms in your show.
I made a mock-up of the gallery layout on the computer and then reproduced it in carpet. I wanted it to seem like a recording of the second gallery space to complicate how time is perceived within the space. For instance, if this piece is a recording of the other space, does that mean that Carr Chapel was produced after that room? I also want viewers to feel implicated in the space, like they are a part of the work, or a part of history.
What's something weird you learned about the World's Fair in your research?
Part of my exhibition was focused on the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. This is not the World's Fair that everyone associates with Chicago (the one from 1893, where the Ferris Wheel was introduced and a bunch of people got murdered), but there is, nevertheless, a lot of fascinating information out there. There was, for instance, Sally Rand, who performed extremely notorious “fan dances” at the fair that were so scandalous that she was once arrested four times in one day. She also rode around Chicago on a white horse while appearing nude (though I think she was wearing body paint), which also led to her arrest.
I was unsurprised, amused and disappointed to see that most of the cartoon representations of the fair featured men leering at women having wardrobe malfunctions, though the women seem unperturbed in these images. These were mostly postcard souvenirs from the fair, and certainly do not represent the height of comics history, but they are fascinating. Comics have a pretty resolutely lowbrow history tied in with marketing and advertising, as evidenced with these. They also unnecessarily objectify women with only minor tangential connections to the fair. And while these were deemed an acceptable “low art” representation of the fair, presumably drawn by men, and the nude paintings within the art institute, also painted by men, were deemed acceptable “high art” affiliated with the fair, a woman actually deciding to reveal her body was seen as outrageous. Like, women's sexuality is only acceptable if it's mediated through a male lens. It is not surprising, but I find these to be illustrative of an attitude still prevalent today.
Your work wrestles gender inequality to the floor. It's unfortunate that feminism has a bad connotation since it merely refers to equality. How do you cope?
Living in this country has recently made me feel like we're in an age of social regression where gender inequality and violence is increasingly deemed acceptable, and those who strive for equality are demonized as irrational or man-hating or something. It is exhausting and frustrating. I've realized that, while I read and listen to the news, I do not do it with the same fervor that I have previously because I get really depressed.
For me, art-making has provided a venue where I can express a reflection of the world as I see it, as well as offering space to fully articulate my own vision of the future and politics. I've found that the studio and making comics is so crucial in giving me a voice, particularly when I have jobs where I feel disenfranchised or am forced to listen to some horrifying misogynistic political rhetoric. I find that, in much of my life, I tone down my own political views so as not to seem too radical or confrontational—at least in professional situations—but, in the studio, I am in charge and can be completely honest with my own thoughts.
One of the thrilling parts of teaching the history of comics is getting to do research into the forgotten histories of cartoonists who've been neglected due to their gender, race, sexual orientation or other biographical details. The earliest comic strip with a recurring character, Ally Sloper, was drawn by Marie Duval, though for various reasons, this is neglected in most comics history books, although her strip pre-dates the so-called first modern comics by thirty years. It's such a funny thing because I honestly feel radical in my classes, talking about women in comics or the history of African-American newspaper comics, but the students seem to think that my class is normal. And that's the hope! To normalize the fact that there have been non-cis white men making comics since the beginning.
Why is humor important, and why are people in Chicago so funny and good at comics?
I love humor and acknowledge that it is one of the main tools through which I'm able to stay alive. I'm Canadian, but I live in Chicago, and I find that both Canadians and Chicagoans are very funny... I can’t put my finger on it, but I think that most of the funny people I've met are often poor, or live in an isolated place, or in a place where there are long winters, or even in a “second city” kind of scenario like Chicago... I think that people become funny through hardship, and that good humor necessitates an ability to laugh at yourself. I think about the principle of “punching up” and “punching down” often: it is funny to make fun of yourself or those who have more power than you, but it is not funny to make fun of those over whom you have power.
Jessica Campbell's solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago is on view through July 7, 2019.