I’ve been keeping track of Jessica Campbell’s career for some time. I laughed aloud with her 2018 show “who dis” at Western Exhibitions, which tackled the weird visual culture of smartphones, and this latest exhibition showcases all the humor and formal sophistication I’ve come to expect from her. It also represents an ambitious step forward. Although Campbell makes comics, paintings and drawings, the distinctive carpet pieces installed against floor-to-ceiling industrial carpeting in her “Carr Chapel” feel like the maturing fruit of long reflection.
Carpet might seem like an unusual medium to work in, at least in the way that Campbell does, but it’s strangely effective. Of course, there’s the brief shock of recognition when you see an object mounted on the wall when you’re used to seeing it on the floor, but she also uses carpet’s formal properties to good effect. Collaged together from fragments of acrylic rug, each piece is a miniature world of textures and scales. In “The Brutal Telling,” a woman in early-twentieth-century dress paints in profile, her arm outlined by a thin strip of green against a lilac blouse. Strong vertical stripes (wallpaper? bars?) form a striking backdrop. The different fabrics produce dizzying effects of scale and perspective; for example, the yellow floor protrudes thanks to the carpet’s high-pile while the easel seems to slink in a disconcerting inversion of background and foreground. Cézanne would be proud.
Much of Campbell’s subject matter in this show is taken from the life and work of Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871-1945). For those of us who live in the United States, it can be hard to understand Carr’s significance for the Canadian art world. Her modernist landscapes look a bit underwhelming, and her obsessive depiction of First Nations sculptures feels uncomfortably fetishizing in this day and age. But it’s impossible to escape her in cities like Vancouver, home to the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, where the top floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery is usually given over to a rotating cast of paintings by Carr and her peers in the Group of Seven. Campbell tackles this overwhelming presence head-on, drawing parallels between Carr’s experience and her own life as an artist growing up in Canadian cities, and adapting Carr’s diaries into a comic that you can take away from the show.
Campbell also shows how Carr’s gender shaped both her paintings and the reception of those paintings. Let’s go back to “The Brutal Telling,” where a sprawling, bearded man, cigar in hand and tongue askew, firmly grasps the painter’s ass. In Campbell’s comic, the same picture recurs in a series of panels as the man announces, “It is high time…that you learned the ways of the world.” There’s a tremendous amount to unpack here. Sexual objectification is still a way of the world, and women still have a tough time making their way into major North American museum collections. Campbell has a rare gift for making all these points with dark, funny, sumptuously textured pictures. (Luke A. Fidler)
“Chicago Works: Jessica Campbell” shows through July 7 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago.