Jessica Campbell (b. 1985) is a Canadian artist and cartoonist based in Chicago. Her satirical drawings, comics and textiles speak about her imagery that she uses to show the world from her point of you, often revealing the sexist society in which we still live.
In December the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago will dedicate to her a solo show Chicago Works, mostly focused on her carpet works.
What are you going to present at MCA? Are you excited about this opportunity?
Yes, sure! It’s a pretty big deal, this is my first solo museum show.
The exhibition in MCA is going to be in two different rooms.
For the first room I decided to start from Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. I teach history of comics and in part it involves talking about what happens before the birth of comic. In my opinion Giotto’s work is a sort of proto comics in some way.
The way we engaged with reading comics and looking at a work of art is really different. The comic means to be read quickly and you have to understand that there is a sequence, while, in front of a work of art, you supposed only to look at it and to interpret it. I was thinking how to merge these two things in some way and Scrovegni’s Chapel provided me a model.
So, starting from this inspiration, I’ll realise a carpeted room with 24 panels, reproducing the form of Giotto’s panels and making a narrative composition. The panels will show some autobiographical events but also others from the life of Emily Carr (1871-1945), a famous modernist painter born in my hometown, Victoria.
We have a lot of overlaps in our biography: she was also a cartoonist, she made rugs. So I decided to mash up our life together to obtain something indistinguishable.
In the second room, on the wall, there will be some illegible drawings, as they are covered in chalk. For these I decided to redraw some of the unpublished cartoon that Emily did when she was young.
On the ground there will be some carpets representing some of the works of art showed in 1933
at the Art Institute for the show Century of Progress. Emily came to Chicago ones to see this exhibition, but she arrived the day after the exhibition closed so she wasn’t able to see it. So I decided to reproduce some of the works that she was supposed to see, in particular some female nudes, demonstrating also women’s presence in the canon of Western art history primarily as muses, not artists.
Finally, I will make a comic book, a sort of catalogue, in which there will be a page of comics associated to each panels, a kind of explanation of the story.
So, which is the main theme of this project? Your lives, yours and Emily’s one? Or your lives are an expedient to speak about bigger theme?
Certainly, in many way the exhibition is about Emily’s life and in particular about its complexity: she was a great painter, but she was denied a lot of because she was a woman; she had a reverence for indigenous culture but she had also this kind of paternalist and colonialist attitudes about its original culture.
So part of the project deals with her complexity, a complexity that could also be read in a contemporary and general way. In fact, in all of my works there is always humour, feminism, gender politics, a kind of dark, sadder part, but it’s not something that I move consciously, it naturally comes out in the work.
When and why did you decided to use carpet as an artistic media?
I started use carpet on the ground initially: I did an installation with a carpet on the floor, some posters and books. It meant to be a sort of fake version of my teen’s bedroom. I made this carpet thinking about how I felt when I was a teenager, very depressed and only wanting to lie on the floor all the time.
Then, I started to make brick wall rugs in black and white: I used it on the floor to connected together the various part of my installations.
So, at the beginning, carpets weren’t the protagonist of your work.
No, in fact they were only part of the installation.
Then, I had the idea to make an image out of carpets and I started by trying to do collage with them. I started making a little couple of small pieces. At the time I had an exhibition coming up and I intended to work with carpets on the ground, as usually. However, for technical reasons connected with the space of the gallery, I couldn’t work on the ground and so I decided to use this opportunity to work with carpets on the wall.
But, how do you make these rugs?
For this exhibition in particular I used two different methods, based on collage technique.
For the more simple rug [composed, for example, by two forms and colours] I do the stencil of the figures I want to make out of carpets. Then, I cut these forms and then I put them together.
In addition, there is a more complicated technique: I draw on the board the sketch of the scene I’m working on, then I cut the various pieces of carpets and I paste them on the board.
At the beginning, passing from paper to carpet was very challenging because I still don’t know the limitations of the carpet, such as the difficulty to find details.
Now it’s easier because I understand that I have to flexible, I know that some thing has to change when translated into a rug.
And where do you find the carpets for your collages?
Originally I was using bath mats. Then, when I started to work on the MCA’s project, I needed a lot of carpets. So I started to ask to a carpet company if they have carpets remains and if they can give me what they don’t need.
I’m very happy about this solution because by recycling I do something ecological.
Do you think that some themes become more vivid in carpet?
I think that there are some cultural associations with the carpet that are inevitable because of its visual and material component. Carpets seem inherent to a gender art form and to a traditionally gender craft; those things seem to me inevitable. However, I think you could talk about feminism with different artistic media.
What about you, do you think that carpet is more suitable for some themes more than others?
Not really, but I think that, thanks to carpet, in your work there is a strong contrast that make the faced theme more powerful. On one hand, your works present a soft surface that fascinates and attracts people, on the other hand, the themes you deal with are really demanding and difficult and sometimes they scare people away. So this contrast make your work more incisive.
Yes, definitely the contrast is something I’m really interested in. For the same reason I like using a cartoonist style, a sort of child appearance to talk about dark and difficult themes.
What are you going to do after the MCA exhibition? Are you still going to use carpets in your works?
Right now I don’t still have the time to think what is going to be next. But I’m sure I’d like to try experimenting again, maybe with different materials from carpets.
Be sure to check out Jessica Campbell’s newest works on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, running December 19, 2018, through July 7, 2019.