CHICAGO — Chicago Works: Jessica Campbell at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is an astonishing number of things at once: dark yet upbeat; art historical yet populist; heavily political yet oblique and mysterious. It is also an homage to the Expressionist painter Emily Carr, an autobiography, an adaptation of comic book aesthetics, and the best use of industrial carpet fragments I have seen. That it achieves all this in two smallish rooms is impressive; that it achieves this with a strong sense of coherence is amazing.
Campbell, born in 1985, grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, walking the same streets and visiting the same beaches and forests where, a century earlier, Emily Carr painted the landscapes that made her an iconic figure in Canada’s art history. So it comes as no surprise that Campbell looks to Carr as a kind of artistic patron saint. The large ink drawings in the outer room of Campbell’s MCA show reproduce some cartoons Carr drew, primarily for her private journals. Campbell has obscured Carr’s imagery with broad, thick charcoal lines, though; the images can’t be seen clearly until one comes close to them — which can’t be done without walking over another of Campbell’s works, “A Century of Progress” (2018), a large, brightly colored woven carpet depicting female nudes from art history (including, among others, a nude by Matisse, another by Titian, and one that appears to be a Bernard Karfiol).
Crossing the carpet, the subjects of Carr’s drawings come into focus: the daily lives of women — knitting together, taking their pets on outings. No one is posing naked. The political point — that one must get past, even tread on, the tradition in art of a male gaze objectifying the female body to reach the reality of a woman’s experience — is clear. Campbell’s strategy sounds heavy-handed when described. But she handles her message deftly, combining the wry humor of Carr’s drawings with the somber darkness of the charcoal obscuring them, as well as the sexism of the famous nudes with the bright fuzziness of the carpet fiber. Campbell’s light touch sits well with her direct confrontation of the tradition of the female nude.
The curiously mixed tone continues and intensifies in the inner room, which houses Carr Chapel (2018), a single work in 24 parts. The walls are completely covered in industrial carpeting, creating a neutral ground into which a series of rectangular carpet fragment collages are placed. The figural collages depict scenes from Carr’s and Campbell’s lives, and the arrangement of the images in strips or bands around the perimeter of the room gives the impression of having walked into a comic book — an impression reinforced by the images’ low-resolution, brightly colored quality (Campbell has called the figures “muppet-y”). At the same time, to be surrounded by these images in a room labeled as a chapel is to be reminded of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel (c. 1305), with its limited-palette panels depicting the life of Christ. The dim lighting underscores the sense of sacred space, as do the hushed acoustics resulting from the carpeted walls.
Carr Chapel depicts no savior’s life. It communicates through juxtapositions, placing isolated moments from two lives side by side rather than composing a single, chronological narrative. But there is a touch of hagiography to Campbell’s images. The panels of Carr Chapel depict Campbell’s formative life events happening in locations in British Columbia associated with Carr: one shows Carr en route to Chicago (where Campbell lives) for the 1933 World’s Fair — to which she arrived late, unable to see the art exhibits she had hoped to view. But the most important parallels between the artists’ lives have nothing to do with geographical coincidence. They’re much darker than that. “The Brutal Telling” shows Carr to one side, painting at an easel, while a bearded man sprawls in a drunken posture on a comfortable chair in the center of the picture plane, one hand clutching a cigar, the other reaching out to fondle Carr’s buttocks.
Another panel, “The Welcome Man,” shows Campbell and a female friend in early adolescence. They sit on a dock in the lower right, turned away from us and toward the center of the space, where a man sits on the edge of a boat. Fat, bespectacled, wearing flip-flops and a shirt that exposes his ample belly, the man’s arm points to the side, his mouth is open. The gesture indicates authority: he is explaining something to the girls who squat at his feet, or perhaps he is issuing them warnings or injunctions. But the true focal point is the man’s crotch: he wears shorts, and in his lounging posture his genitals are exposed, quite possibly by choice. The name of the boat appears painted on the side of the vessel, not far from the man’s groin: “Seaman.” Campbell implies that there has been one constant in the experiences of women across generations: the sexual aggression of men. To see such disturbing images depicted in colors and made with materials that evoke stuffed animals is disorienting. Combined with the chapel-like atmosphere and the evocation of canonical sacred art, the effect is truly dizzying: a cocktail of the disturbing, the comforting, the cute, the somber, and the kitschy, with overtones of the sacred and sublime.
Campbell is an accomplished cartoonist, and a pocket-sized comic book accompanies the show. Text from Emily Carr’s journals runs beneath black and white ink drawings with scenes from both Carr’s and Campbell’s lives. Some of the panels are small renditions of the larger, colorful images in Carr Chapel, making what had seemed like isolated moments into something far more narrative. Sometimes the revelations in the narrative are particularly disturbing: we see, for example, that the man groping Emily Carr in “The Brutal Telling” is her father. The comic ends with an image of another panel from Carr Chapel, “Resurrection,” which depicts the rug and charcoaled-over versions of Carr’s cartoons from the outer room of Campbell’s show — tying together both the separate parts of the exhibition and the lives of the two artists. It is a remarkable gesture, and a sign of the strong unity underlying a show of formal complexity, aesthetic richness, and political relevance.
Chicago Works: Jessica Campbell, presented by Nina Wexelblatt, continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through July 7.