The first threatens all artists, and everyone else too: simple disregard. The viewer makes a rolling stop at each frame, not accelerating past, but not quite willing to press the brake all the way down, either. To conserve momentum, each region of the body points a different direction. The feet stalk a parallel line to the wall, the torso aims somewhere between, leaving only the face to address the work. Perhaps every third or fourth frame, we briefly cease our creep-walk and hunker down to really look. But even then, we hunch forward, as if confronting a pedantic stranger, or else lean back, already angling to get away.
In the description for Tammi Campbell’s self-titled exhibition at Division Gallery in Montreal (her first with the gallery, closing September 9), we are told that “she draws attention to the work of art as object and to the associated activity of an object’s contemplation.” The activity of an art object’s contemplation is usually a very brief affair. Some museum researchers put it between an average of fifteen and thirty seconds, though others say that’s too generous: seven seconds is more accurate. But despite our impoverished regard, Campbell doesn’t try to compensate or plead for our attention; rather, she leaps straight toward the annihilation of being mostly ignored. Because, at first glance, the show looks sleek, chic, and rather dull. The walls are hung with what appear to be small or mid-size canvases wrapped in plain packing material, cardboard brown and plastic-wrap shiny. With these, Campbell dares us to do our worst: to be distracted, feel nothing, move along. “Her paintings … all but disappear,” the gallery admits.
In the opening to his essay for Campbell’s previous exhibition, Monochrome, which included many of the same works, Troy Gronsdahl relates an anecdote about a visitor pleading with her child not to enter the show: “There’s nothing there,” she implores. For the impatient, Campbell recedes into a vexing emptiness.
For the viewer who manages to endure past the first seven seconds – and past their weary suspicion that this is all just some lazy artworld pap – Campbell waits with a hard slap. Having numbed the unsuspecting with what appear to be readymades straight out of the artist’s studio, Campbell sets us careening toward the big blunt fact of the show: the perfunctory packages are in fact hyper-realist trompe l’oeil paintings. That is, these are paintings of paintings that are wrapped up and ready to ship.
Here ensues our incredulity, for Campbell is virtuosic in her ability to transform acrylic paint into three-dimensional simulacra of bubble wrap, masking tape, and recycled paper. The most astonishing of all the works are two folded tarpaulins resting atop a low plinth. One is blue, the other white, and both are authentic to an uncanny degree, down to the faint grid pattern that you would only notice if you put your nose to within eight inches of their crinkled surface. But then, the bubble wrap may be even more remarkable. It’s hard to choose.
Even if we knew the conceit going into the show, as inevitably we would, Campbell’s execution is so detailed that we might stay to do a spit-take – whereupon, two strong urges take root. The first is to peer at the paintings as closely as we dare, and the other is to touch them. Assuming we indulge the former and allow the work to fill our field of vision, we are overwhelmed by the evidence of Campbell’s labor. We feel the ocular weariness, the unsparing grind, the sheer task-ness of it all, as both art and artist recede behind a wall of hard work. When it seemed cheap and easy, Campbell’s art refused to invite us in; now that it looks gruelingly impressive, we see the hard surface of her diligence, and not much else. Virtuosity draws attention to itself and obscures the rest.
But the feeling of awe soon darkens under the specter of the joke. By converting a believable artistic concept into a feat of painterly power, Campbell has hoisted a pair of giant scare-quotes into the air around each work. In so doing, she triggers an alarm, warning us to muster our faculties so that we can arrive on the right side of the laugh-track. Fortunately, Campbell is generous not only with her effort and her skill, but also with her wit. If there was a cat in the room, now only its devious smile remains.
Campbell’s work addresses the Minimalist and Modernist traditions in art. If she painted fields of light brown crossed with bands of paler brown instead of cardboard and masking tape, or if she hung actual frames encased in bubble wrap instead of painted reproductions, she would scan as an important artist of the mid-twentieth century. As it is, her confidence in producing the atmosphere of Modernism – and particularly the Minimalist movement within it – betrays a genuine affection for some of its features and principal players, like Frank Stella and Agnes Martin. (In fact, since 2010, Campbell has been composing daily “letters” to Martin, which consist of linear graphite drawings, in a series titled Dear Agnes.) Campbell evidently relishes the companionship of her forebears, but she’s also too smart to imitate them.
Campbell jogs comfortable, loping circles around her mostly male, mostly American referents, whose precepts she adopts and then reverses. She achieves their aims while betraying their strictures. Consider Clement Greenberg’s 1960 essay Modernist Painting; Campbell contradicts him at every turn. Greenberg says that while realistic art dissembles, “Modernism [uses] art to call attention to art.” Campbell does just that – she “draws attention to the work of art as object” – but through realism.
Greenberg laced his writing about Modernist painting with an implied threat. He argued that art must justify itself through self-criticism or else face assimilation into entertainment or therapy. By Greenberg’s account, Modernist painters made their art secure – that is, they staked their territory and put up a fence – by setting its limits to the materiality of paint and “the ineluctable flatness of the surface.” The Minimalists rejected Greenberg’s anti-sculptural regulations, but continued to pursue forms of purity and authenticity, as if still driven by a self-rationalizing requirement.
It’s possible to read Campbell as someone who swims confidently in what Greenberg calls “the intelligible continuity of taste and tradition” with the Modernist and Minimalist movements, the chief difference being that she is liberated from any burden of proof. Thus, she’s free to play a game of evacuating herself – or any artistic decisions she might make – from the work. (For instance, Campbell makes a show of being even more austere than her Minimalist counterparts, who use color and composition expressively, whereas her choices are ostensibly guided by scientific accuracy.) When we look at Campbell’s paintings, we don’t ask ourselves if we are capable of arriving at the depth of her artistic experience through our looking. We don’t subject her to our skepticism or our cloying. It isn’t she who’s on the defensive – it’s us.
Rather than invite us through to an encounter, Campbell’s works rebound against the viewer. At first quiet and unassuming, they slowly start to emit an angry buzz. Rather than yield an inch to expression, the paintings adamantly assert their own specific factuality, i.e. what they actually are. In particular, the works insist on a particular technique, which has been applied to no painterly purpose except to create an instantly intelligible effect (that is, it looks exactly like what it’s supposed to look like). Everything we’re supposed to see, Campbell throws in our faces. She doesn’t beckon; instead, she deflects our looking – our assumptions, our knowingness, our probing – back against us, with a shove.
The final disappearance is the most obvious: the subject of the work. Having been spun around by a facsimile of anti-illusionism that is itself an illusion, we come face to face with the paintings again and remember that most of them are straightforward representations of an absence. While some depict blank canvases, still protected by plastic wrap, the majority portray finished works at the point of egress from the studio, all packaged up for transport. Underneath her immaculate reproductions, Campbell suggests, paintings of another sort wait in darkness. And yet, into this void we are free to pour our interpretations and our politics, so that with yet another reversal, Campbell’s occlusion becomes suddenly vivid. The hidden canvases are a final masterstroke of elision. Campbell has found the perfect antidote to the virtuosity she required, and the ideal escape hatch from the realism she couldn’t do without – erasure.