First Look: Jessica Campbell

Jessica Campbell: Blue Sky, 2018, acrylic rug on panel, 36 by 48 inches. Courtesy Western Exhibitions, Chicago.


THE FULLY CARPETED domestic interior—walls and all—had a brief moment as a middle-class amenity in the 1970s, before it passed nearly instantly out of style. Canadian artist Jessica Campbell works with commercial carpet, cutting and collaging pieces of this gauche material (some of which are garish rejects from trade shows) to produce humorous pictorial narratives. The flyaway fibers make it difficult to render fine details; here, Campbell’s ability to communicate deftly through abbreviated line and form serves her well. She has honed these skills by producing ruthlessly funny comics, many of which skewer conventional gender norms. In her popular book Hot or Not: 20th-Century Male Artists (2016), she has great fun rating the sexiness (or lack thereof) of various modernist masters.

A native of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Campbell moved to Chicago in 2012, and received her MFA in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute in 2014. Shortly after graduating, she made her first forays into carpet-based work, creating one-panel scenes that are at once uproarious and cringeworthy, on subjects such as technology, sexism, and the art world.

Campbell’s current show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the latest installment of the museum’s “Chicago Works” series showcasing local artists, is centered on pioneering Canadian modernist painter Emily Carr (1871–1945). In one gallery, Campbell has installed a series of wall-mounted carpet collages that are informed by Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (which she has identified as a precursor to comics). Like Giotto chronicling Christ, Campbell presents pivotal moments in Carr’s life from birth to death, alternating these with autobiographical vignettes that subtly mark sites of overlap between her subject and herself. (Carr, like Campbell, was born on Vancouver Island, and she was also a cartoonist.) For example, one collage depicts an adolescent Campbell making out with a boy by a bonfire on the same shore where, as we are informed in an accompanying comic publication, Carr took walks as a young woman.

Another room features a number of witty, satirical cartoons from Carr’s journals, which Campbell redrew on an expanded scale and then buried beneath broad strokes of charcoal. By demanding the viewer’s physical presence and close attention, Campbell preserves the intimacy of Carr’s originals, which the artist created to enjoy with her sisters and friends. Harnessing inelegant mediums to surprisingly emotive effect, Campbell transformed the galleries into a temple to Carr’s legacy while staking out her own place within it.