Jessica Campbell Essay
Essay Section 1
It’s hard to manifest progress, but Chicago has a long history of trying. The World’s Fair of 1933 marched toward the future under a hopeful banner: “A Century of Progress.” Just after a world war and against a background of the Great Depression, the fair’s exhibitions cheerily laid the groundwork for what it meant to be modern. Displays spanned the industrial (a functioning Chevrolet production line) to the domestic (a newfangled dishwasher). Presenting these disparate projects under a single umbrella seemed to suggest a parity between public and private forms of labor—a flattening of old hierarchies.
The message of the Fair, like any good ideological project, was bolstered by a rich visual culture. Hildreth Meière painted a sixty-foot mural titled Progress of Women, or The Onward March of Women in the Social Science Hall as part of the National Council for Women’s exhibit (fig. 1). In the mural, orderly Art Deco women march onward like words on a page, from behind allegorical prison bars on the left to the liberation of “greater social justice” on the right. The title of one early episode is telling: “She steps over the threshold into a field of wider interest.” These ladies are on the go, and just beyond the doors of their homes, the world is there to greet their interested step!
Essay Section 2
Not far away, at the Art Institute of Chicago, was “Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture Lent from American Collections.” The exhibition included examples spanning from 13th century European masterpieces to contemporaneous European and American work, with a particularly strong emphasis on the female nude across mediums (fig. 2). Robert B. Harshe, the Art Institute’s director at the time, wrote that “progress” in this case meant to celebrate, among other things, the acceleration of American collecting practices over the previous hundred years. In other words, in that time, we got very good at consolidating ownership of culture.
Essay Section 3
How do these two events square with one another? If history really were a linear march of empowered women stepping over any number of thresholds, why were the galleries of the most powerfully prestigious art institution in the city at that very moment full of women’s bodies, painted or sculpted almost exclusively by men, and owned by very rich patrons? As it turns out, progress isn’t a line on a page so much as a raggedy blanket, covering different people and places in different ways and leaving others out in the cold.
Or perhaps it is a roll of industrial carpet, discarded from some trade show, cut up and glued on a slab of wood. At least, that’s the proposition of Chicago-based artist Jessica Campbell, whose carpet paintings carve out moments in time and paste them back together with cartoonish disjunction. For Campbell, twenty-four of these poignant, funny, and at times grotesque scenes interweave her own formative—and often traumatic—personal experiences with moments from the biography of artist Emily Carr (1871–1945), one of the most highly regarded Canadian painters of the twentieth century.
The mural’s immersive format and color scheme were inspired by the frescoes of Giotto di Bondone’s fourteenth-century Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy (fig. 3). The fresco’s registers communicated religious doctrine wordlessly to a largely illiterate society—expressive, indeed, much in the same way as a comic strip. Likewise, most of the stories Campbell recounts in the mural are available to read without words, making incredibly personal stories legible and relatable to viewers with or without any prior knowledge of both artists’ lives.
Essay Section 4
Both women grew up in Victoria, British Columbia nearly a century apart, and the juxtaposition of the stories in the mural speaks to Carr’s influence on Campbell as a young artist. Carr’s ubiquity rolled out like rug beneath Campbell’s artistic upbringing. She recalls the tedium of seeing Carr’s work everywhere growing up, a sort of ambient swirl of trees and totem poles creating an internal, mental landscape as much as it reflected the wilderness of western Canada outside the threshold (fig. 4). Campbell isn’t alone in this feeling; though Carr never achieved the same stature as her male peers in her own lifetime, her paintings forged a visual language that would later become essential to Canadian national (and colonial) identity.
Essay Section 5
Carr was an avid traveler at a time when women were often discouraged, no matter what any mural suggested, from going out into the world alone. She arrived by train to Chicago on November 2nd of 1933 to see the Art Institute’s “Century of Progress” exhibition. “I’m wriggling with thrills…To be on the same continent and not go see it seems a shame,” she wrote in her journal. Carr arrived, however, just one day after the exhibition had closed. She felt the disappointment of not seeing the works that had motivated the trip as “the awfulest blow.” She left Chicago gladly, writing, “The Lord be praised! I leave Chicago tomorrow.”
Campbell, by contrast, came to Chicago and stayed, digging into those awful blows in her rework of the Scrovegni Chapel. While Giotto’s lofty frescoes line the walls with narratives from the life of Christ in temporal order, from birth to death, Campbell’s bathmat homage is shaggily irreverent. The carpet mural crystalizes its stories into instants of peak absurdity: a young Campbell defecating on the floor and blaming it on the dog, Carr dressing her pet monkey in a dress. Vibrant, colorful, and richly textured, the carpet also dampens the sound in the room. The chapel-like atmosphere allows us to contemplate imagery that is rarely given space for serious contemplation: the sometimes pathetic, sometimes triumphant, and always strange lives of women.
Serious, yes, but the work is hilarious. The title of Carr’s 1941 memoir, Klee Wyck, translates to “Laughing One,” the appellation given to her by one of the Native communities she befriended at Ucluelet, something between a nickname and an honorific. Campbell’s work, like Carr’s, takes laughter seriously as a marker of self-knowledge; her subjects assert that women can identify themselves beyond their socially determined roles as muse or matron and instead be known by their observant, affective orientation toward the world around them, in the way they see it. Lord be praised indeed!
The mural is no meditation on a singular savior. As it jump cuts between multiple perspectives and timelines, the artists’ twinned lives become referenda on broader patterns: stepping over the threshold into a world of collective experience. Moments of general demeaning—a grope, a flash, an off-color remark—sting across time and space. But they also bring us together in solidarity. If the scenes of the mural are comforting in their difficulty, it is because of their relatability to a common experience of Western girlhood and the more general realization that even the most traumatic events in our lives have precedent.
This precedent is spatial, as well. Campbell’s autobiographical scenes played out in the same landscapes Carr occupied. A childhood friend lived in an apartment building Carr once owned, for instance, so the two could sneak up into the attic to see an otherwise inaccessible mural Carr painted. Later, her first art show would take place at a gallery in Carr’s former house. Campbell reminds us that there is no terra incognita, even in our most devastatingly personal moments: either you’re making out on a beach painted by a famous artist, or you’re breaking up in front of a building she frequented. By tangling her stories up with Carr’s, Campbell suggests that as much as the past haunts our present, ghost-like, we are also doggedly following the trails of our forebears, on the march like bumbling and very belated stalkers.
Campbell exposes our particular condition of progress, whatever that means, through a medium that could be called the shaggy carpet story. Everything depicted is true in some sense, but sometimes it appears larger than life, full of over-determination and visual puns. When there is text, it is diegetic, onomatopoetic, and winkingly archetypical. Of course the ship behind the man exposing his penis on a public dock is called “Seaman!” And of course the comic nerd insisting on Campbell’s attention at a book fair has “DRAGON” written askew across the armpit of his shirt! In the tradition of the best comedians, Campbell plays with the idea of a faithful retelling, moving away from accuracy and towards precision. Cartoon truth comes through in the aggregate, the heap.
Text returns in a printed comic that complicates the narratives of the mural by extending each scene into a full page containing multiple panels. Campbell pairs these more complexly rendered stories with texts drawn from both her own and Carr’s personal writing. Expanded and juxtaposed, the comic provides an alternate—and equally valid—way to parse the scenes depicted. This is an explicitly feminist gesture: opening the door to multiple perspectives on the same basic facts, acknowledging strands of complexity, connection, and contradiction.
Carr, like Campbell, was an expressive and deft cartoonist, drawing loosely autobiographical caricatures in her journal while traveling through Canada and Europe. The premise is crushingly relatable: unable to make a living with her paintings, Carr turned to other mediums. Unpublished during her lifetime, the drawings provide a lucid glimpse into Carr’s self-image and the domestic experience of women in the early twentieth century. Satirizing Victorian life as she saw it, Carr depicted women with rich and relatable inner lives; her characters jointly adopt cats, annoy their knitting companions, and observe the bustling public street (fig. 5).
Essay Section 6
Campbell has recreated these cartoons and covered them in charcoal. The results test the limits of visibility, reminding us of their origins as private expressions, while also questioning the access women are afforded to craft their own public representations. Beyond its colorful frescoes, the Scrovegni Chapel is renowned for Giotto’s pioneering use of grisaille, a method of representation using only one color. Campbell’s monochrome charcoal drawings allude to this historical technique. And these, too, display scenes of private devotion, not to any particular religious doctrine, but rather to the incisive observation of daily life.
Campbell’s work presents this struggle as more than just a plea for visibility; after all, the nudes in the Art Institute didn’t have the chance to hide much. In a rug, Campbell recreates in cartoonishly stenciled carpet inlay the nudes isolated from works Carr missed. Moving female figures by artists such as Titian, Felice Carena, and Bernard Karfiol from the vaunted walls onto the floor, the rug satirizes the power dynamic at play in the Western art historical canon, which largely ignores women as artists while celebrating them as subjects of the male gaze. Installed in the center of the room with the charcoal drawings, we have to step over them to see something both subtler and more revealing.
Unlike the World’s Fair, which insisted women’s work was legitimized by industrial investment, feminist praxis from the mass demonstration to the consciousness-raising group insists on the political nature of the personal. For Campbell, the project of listening to women is a provocation: reading, shifting position, and reading again. The point is not a confessional, or an exposé, but a fundamental reimagining of what it means to make things public, to look backward, to march onward. So as we close in on a century since the World’s Fair, what progress have we made? Well, who knows. For now, we keep telling stories in loops, laughing.