Q&A with the amazingly talented Jennifer caroline Campbell
We spoke with London-based artist Jennifer Caroline Campbell about her work on the occasion of her solo show Stiletto at Square Art Projects.
Cambridge-born Campbell’s ever-shifting practice fluctuates between painting and sculpture, focusing on reflections of identity and our view of ourselves. Through a playful approach to materials, she cultivates a visual storytelling, creating vibrant and unique work.
Square Art Projects: Hi Jenny, what are you working on at the moment?
Jennifer Caroline Campbell: I’ve just finished a body of site-responsive work for an exhibition and so I’m in that sweet spot of returning to the studio and feeling excited to start on something new.
The works were mainly on the sculptural side, so now I’m excited about making things that are more on the painting side: I constantly shift between the two approaches.
I also like shifting between materials: I predominantly work with various types of acrylic paint (I like its flatness, texture and cultural associations), however last summer a friend gave me some oil paints, so I worked with oil for a few months. The paintings seemed to contain their own narrative in a different way to my previous work. They were unresolved and I left them aside for months, but now I feel that it’s the right moment to return to them and see where I can take them.
I just caught the Alison Katz exhibition at Camden Art Centre and her use of oil, especially in combination with the texture of rice, has given me an urge to see what oils can do for me. My approach to working with any particular material, whether it’s a type of paint or a more sculptural material, is to see what it can do for me, rather than what I can do for it.
I feel a special glint of freedom when I see artworks that turn a medium or tradition on its head and use it in surprising ways. I want to play my part in this collective, forever-renewal. Each time I return to or work with a new material it feels a bit unknown and that’s what I need, so that the process always feels new and keeps me in an inventive mode.
SAP: Can you tell us more about your working process?
JCC: My starting point is usually dual: material and drawing. Drawing is my way of letting fragments of the world into my practice. I see a parallel here with how experience of the world shapes identity.
With my drawing there is balance between chance and choice – I might draw a pedestrian’s shoe or an artefact in a museum. These drawings then mutate in the studio through redrawing and then painting or making.
The painting and making process is very responsive to the material qualities of what I’m using. With painting it might be the surface I’ve chosen to work on. I don’t believe in the ‘blank canvas’ for my own practice. I can’t help but see a canvas as a very specific object with particular formal qualities. But then I’m also fairly allergic to any kind of formulaic approach so if I notice myself making a ‘rule’ I immediately have to break it. For example, I’ve recently been making paintings on wooden panels, a format closer to the idea of a ‘neutral surface’ than my previous work. I’m enjoying working with the hard condensed feel of the panels. With some of them I’ve placed a minimal physical starting point on the surface, like some sand or a found wooden tile. Or sometimes a previous painting provides a starting place.
I’m interested in the idea of interruptions: during the lockdowns a lot of us experienced living with far more predictability and less interruptions. I felt my identity getting sluggish and almost crystallising and I realised that the unpredicted encounters of living life out in the world are essential fuel for identity.
Sometimes painters need to interrupt themselves during the process of painting. Change is essential and I think we need to counter narratives that tell us to categorise experience in fixed and reductive ways. Instead, we could value something about experience that is less describable and binary and more varied. My practice allows me to think through these kinds of values.
SAP: Being an artist is hard. What keeps you going?
JCC: This is a good question to ask. I agree with you and it’s important to acknowledge how precarious it can be, especially in the current political landscape.
The world will ask an artist to do a thousand things instead of going to the studio, so you really have to fight to protect that time when you can, but you also have to look after yourself and not burn out. I am quite driven and I often wonder if the experience of being dyslexic plays a part in this: there were always things I had to try that bit harder at growing up, so I’m used to things not happening easily.
By most accounts it’s a pretty illogical choice to become an artist. But for me it feels more like a compulsive need rather than a choice. One of the things I’ve learned is that when you do carve out time for your practice, you can’t hold that time up to values like ‘productive’ and ‘useful’. You have to be OK with spending a lot of time on a painting and then realising that you need to paint over that painting entirely, but know that it was not ‘wasted’ time. This is an example of how art can reveal the problematic nature of certain contemporary value systems, such as an over-emphasis on efficiency.
Choosing to live as an artist can allow you to question things that are otherwise normalised. My practice teaches me new things all the time. As does teaching art: the discussions I have within the art school context, with colleagues and students, have become a vital and rewarding fuel.
SAP: You mention Zadie Smith as one of your current influences, in particular her essay 'The “I” Who Is Not Me'.One sentence that really sticks in my mind is "For what is impossible about any real-life identity is its narrowness". Can you talk about the importance of identity in your work?
JCC: This essay blew my mind as it made sense of a lot of things I’d been thinking about (thank you Szandra Mile, who knowing my work and interests, drew my attention to the essay in the first place). In the essay Smith talks about a “feeling of impossible identity rooted in childhood” where “you don’t experience yourself as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’”. She says that this led her to see the “radical contingency” of identity: how easily we each could have turned out as a different person.
I don’t know if we ever ‘turn out’ fully though: I think that each moment of each day reshapes our identity in minute or sometimes gigantic ways. But there are cultural narratives in place that try to convince us otherwise.
I want to question how we experience - and how we tell ourselves that we experience - our identity. When my friend (artist and influence) Matilda Moors and I were discussing Virginia Woolf, Matilda said that she thinks the feminine is often asked to be relational.
Through my paintings I’ve been doing a lot of chewing on this idea: that the pressure to be relational has a silver lining, because it exposes a truth about the unfixable and mutable nature of the self.
SAP: And finally, if you could exhibit your work alongside any artist - living or dead - who would it be?
JCC: There are so many artists who have influenced me, some of whom are friends and who I have been lucky enough to exhibit with already. Then there are those particular exhibitions I’ve seen at vital points in my career and it was like a whole new visual language opened up.
Just a few examples are Helen Marten at Sadie Coles HQ (2014) or Tal R at Cheim and Read New York (2017), many of the exhibitions at Transition Gallery, the first time I saw a Rose Wiley, a Phyllida Barlow and an Alfred Wallis... and waaay too many more to mention.
So yep, that is a pretty impossible question! But actually, there is a specific painting I’d love to return to and maybe I’m thinking about it because I’ve just finished an exhibition in Cambridge, which is where I grew up.
The year before I went to The Slade (2011) I was living back at home with my parents in Cambridge in order to save some money and one of my jobs was working as an invigilator at Kettles Yard Gallery. Anyone who has done this kind of work knows that it can drive you loopy, just standing there for hours and days next to the same art works. But it also allows you to absorb artworks in a unique way.
I really remember this painting called ‘November’ by Bridget Riley and it was around that time that I started to really get into using colour in my work, in a very different way to how I had previously. Maybe you could call it a ‘painterly’ way, but I’m never sure about that term. But I really drank in that painting, bit by bit. I could almost taste each separate colour and it really struck me how each colour was so changed by its position on the surface and its relationship to the other colours in the painting. And I love the feeling the title gives me: November.
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