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September 18, 2016


CR Sunday Interview: Jessica Campbell

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I thought Jessica Campbell was very funny before I knew she did comics. Once I read the comics, though, I was done. I really like the sense of humor on display, made even better as she's refined how to use herself as a comedic stand in. I spoke to Campbell in 2012 when she left Drawn & Quarterly to attend school in America. She's since been all the way through grad school and been married, which I guess means she's stuck here for good.

Campbell's latest book Hot Or Not: 20th Century Male Artists is a stand-alone about judging the hotness of artists and comparing it to some element of their work or creative reputation. I like its send-up of museum culture and the general dumbing down of cultural interaction. I'm also grateful to learn who was hot and who was not. I hope that we continue to get work from Campbell however she choose to provide it. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: I always like talking to people about comics they've done that are funny, because now we can ruin it. Can you talk a little bit about what and who you think is funny, first in comics and then more broadly?

JESSICA CAMPBELL: Lisa Hanawalt7, Gina Wynbrandt, Jillian Tamaki, Amy Lockhart, Tom Gauld, Joan Cornella... There are so many extremely funny cartoonists. My day job is in the fine art world and humour there feels a lot rarer. I think this is partly due to Western comics' origin in newspapers, the funnies, and also to the fact that there is a kind of liberty in being viewed as a low art form. The alleviation of the pressure to make "serious art" allows cartoonists to have a sense of humour about themselves, the world... Perhaps this is just due to cartoonists' unhealthy self image.

Outside of comics, an example of something that I find really funny is this: there is a "corgi meet up" group in Chicago on facebook, and they keep trying to organize a corgi meet-up at one of the dog beaches in the city. All of the events have disclaimers on them like "this is only open to corgi owners and please do not click 'attending' unless you actually plan on coming" but then the word will get out and like 12,000 people will click "attending." So the whole group devolves in to this frantic discussion about how the beach can't actually accommodate 12,000 people and did we, the "attendees" even know that there is a kennel cough pandemic right now?? [Spurgeon laughs] And then it inevitably gets cancelled. I love the whole thing: the idea of corgis "meeting up," the unheeded disclaimers, the frantic misguided use of social media, and the final realization that the corgi owners can't have "nice things" because we -- non corgi owning social media users -- keep ruining their digital event.

SPURGEON: How much of the performance that you've done would be recognizable to those who seen both in your comics? Is there a difference between the two forms that you like the most, something about comics that works for you in a way performance might not?

CAMPBELL: Most of my performance work is intertwined with comics. I'll have a slideshow of drawn images and will narrate them. I did a piece a few years ago where I narrated a police report in the future that itemized all of the things in a derelict apartment owned by someone named "Jessica Campbell." I like performance art because of its ephemerality, that you have to be present in a space to really experience it and then it's over. However, that can also be frustrating. For instance, I now have a few performances that I've done and I'd love to make something more concrete/longevous out of them but am uncertain of how to do that since they were really designed to only function in a time-based way.

There's so much that I love about comics, but firstly, it's amazing to be able to create a physical object that exists in multiple so that everyone can own/experience it equally, as opposed to performance that exists only for a specific, short time period or painting/drawing/fine art in which there is a singular object that has to be seen in person.

SPURGEON: How have you adjusted to being a name-company comics alum? That wasn't an easy transition for me. How hard was it to try to shift your identity away from D+Q and was there a moment you became comfortable kind of seeing that as a complete chapter?

CAMPBELL: Oh, it's weird! While I was at D+Q, I wanted to make comics but was surrounded by the work of many of the (in my opinion) greatest living cartoonists, so I was too intimidated. Working there had become so much of my identity -- for instance, my family still sends me links every time a D+Q cartoonist is interviewed on the CBC or something -- so leaving was something I had mixed emotions about. However, my goal was and is always to be a full time artist, so stepping away was the right decision, though I miss all of my old coworkers on basically a daily basis.

Grad school and moving to Chicago was a pretty huge break in my life, and a clear demarcation of D+Q/post D+Q. Around the time that I left, however, I was super fortunate to have been asked by Chuck Forsman to contribute to Oily Comics, and I made a few of those, which allowed me to get my feet wet with making comics. The other people who have been helpful in re-imaging myself as just an artist and not a worker in comics are Frank Santoro, who let me post work on Comics Workbook; Trubble Club, the collective I'm a part of here; and, of course, Annie Koyama, who is publishing my book and who, before that, was very encouraging.

SPURGEON: How do you look at that period in your life now? Do you have perspective on it? How different are you yourself for this succession of major life changes since 2012?

CAMPBELL: 2016 has been the best and worst year of my life. A number of friends died in the past year, there has been some family illness and we had to put down our beloved dog, Tanuki. At the same time, I started teaching at DePaul and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I got married, I recently opened an exhibition at the Sub-Mission in Chicago and now my book is coming out. Life's a g-d rollercoaster.

Other than that, my life since 2012 has changed in other ways. I think that going to grad school made my work a lot better. I don't exactly know how to explain it, but I'm able to think in a way that I couldn't before, like the world has opened up more. Also, Canadian friends tell me that I'm getting an American accent, though I don't think I am.

SPURGEON: There's a definite art-school feel to this one, including our narrator, Docent Jessica Campbell. I know that heading back to school can be terrifying; was it good for you? Did any of that experience make it into here beyond it being roughly in the same neighborhood? Is this a take on art and artists that you used to riff on at school, for instance?

CAMPBELL: Well, I wasn't out of school for that long between my BFA and MFA since I took forever to finish my undergraduate degree (first I flunked out of community college and then went to school part time while I worked at D+Q). I had just turned 26 when I finished undergrad and I was 27 when I started grad school, which I thought was young, perhaps partly due to my living in Canada where school is a lot cheaper and most of the grad students I knew were at least that old. However, when I got to school, many of my compatriots had just come straight out of undergrad so I felt kind of old? The weirdest part was feeling like I had been an adult with a studio and a day job then all of a sudden I was having critiques where people where like "Why are you talking about humour? You're not funny. You don't know what you're doing." My pride was definitely bruised a lot in the first year of grad school.

One of the things that I took note of in school in the US was this emphasis on the American Abstract Expressionists. Like, there is this whole other history of Abstract Expressionism in Quebec that actually started in the early 1940s, earlier than the American movement that was more post WWII. However, in the schools here, even though it's kind of common knowledge that there was collusion between the US government and art writers like Clement Greenberg to falsely promote Ab Ex as a native American art form, distinct from other cultures, it was still kind of the standard against which everything else was gauged.

Anyway, the idea for the book really came from two experiences. The first was that, when Cy Twombly died, I was still working at D+Q and Lynda Barry sent me an email that just said (facetiously) "Cy Twombly when he was my boyfriend" and included a picture of a handsome young Twombly. The second was that my former coworker in Chicago, a painter named Katherine Harvath, and I would gchat at work and at some point started asking each other to guess if certain male painters were hot and then would find images to prove/disprove each other's theory. There's a really nice nude pic of Frank Stella with one of his paintings that sort of kicked the whole thing off.

imageSPURGEON: Chicago has a great reputation as an arts town and as a comics town? Which one does it deserve less and why? If the gotcha formulation of that is as annoying to you as it looks to me, can you talk about making art in Chicago, making comics with what looks like a growing scene? Is it like JC Menu suggested, a cartoonist on every corner?

CAMPBELL: [laughs] Yeah, cartoonists are stationed around the city on each block, greeting tourists and attempting to promote comics. Hm, this is a tough question!!! I guess one indicator might be that I know a lot more fine artists who leave Chicago for LA or New York than cartoonists. Perhaps this is because comics are more mobile than art is. Like, if you're a painter, your goal is probably to exhibit your work somehow. In order to get opportunities to exhibit your work, you will probably need studio visits, which means, most likely, being in a city where there are galleries or institutions that can come to your studio. While there are a few phenomenal museums in Chicago, and a healthy number of galleries, your chances of getting a gallery exhibition are probably higher in New York or Los Angeles where there are just more places to show. However, Chicago's cheaper than other big cities so it's more feasible to work part-time or to have a studio here.

Cartoonists, however, can kind of live wherever. Aaron (Renier, to whom I am married) and I talk about this a lot, like, where do we want to be? And basically it comes down to somewhere that is affordable and where there are other cartoonists to hang out with. If we ever leave Chicago, it'll likely be because I need to be able to get in to the forest or to the ocean before I go insane.

SPURGEON: This might fold back into my questions about the performance stuff you've done, but I really like the way the Jessica character has developed. She has a real presence on the page she didn't. Was it hard for you to find a way to depict yourself, to facilitate your humor? Was there any difficult in developing how you were going to draw and so on?

CAMPBELL: Many years ago I read Paul Auster's City of Glass and his use of his own name in the book was fascinating and really stuck with me. So I guess in using my name in this book, or in my previous performances, I was kind of thinking of the character as sharing my name and characteristics but not being me, necessarily.

SPURGEON: Comedy can be about feel and it can also be about precision. How much attention do you pay to the mechanics of what appears on the page? Do you work through the timing of things, how many words you use, and so on? Were there any difficulties with that here?

CAMPBELL: Oh, I write and re-write the same sentence over and over again until it feels "right" to me. I think my dedication to writing, to rewriting the same thing until it sounds as funny as possible is why stand-up comedy is really challenging and my accidental dabblings in improv were complete nightmare. (One time a friend and I went for a drink in Chicago and it turned out the bar was an improv bar and, as the only "audience" members, we got dragged onstage so that it was just us and the improv-ers, performing a scene, for no one.)

The difficulties are really now, when I read the book and realize that I could have phrased things differently. Also, I couldn't decide whether calling Gauguin a "child fucker" was going too far so I cut it. But that's what he straight-up was, so maybe I should have left it in. I don't know.

SPURGEON: To broaden that question, tell me a little bit about how you work. Like how did this go from idea to the choices you made to unpack that idea in a certain way. Why make the choice with the full pages, and the introductory narrative?

CAMPBELL: Originally, I just had the full pages and was going to release this as a mini. Then I sent the files to Annie, and she pointed out, rightly, that it felt too abrupt and wanted to expand it. So I added a bunch of new pages and the intro/post script, as a way of easing the abruptness. Adding the introductory narrative was a way for me to create a context for the meat of the jokes, like, we're going through the museum, that's the connection between all these artists; they're all next to each other on the wall.

imageSPURGEON: Where the hell did that great bit of business where you say the answer and then call on someone in the audience to say yes? I don't know that I've seen that before, and that strikes me as really straight-forward and funny.

CAMPBELL: Going to school at the Art Institute, and teaching there now, I have spent/spend a lot of time in the museum, so I see tour groups going through, and watch the docents. I also will bring my own classes there, and there's this performative element to teaching where I'm like "OK! Who can tell me what they think is significant about this Daumier drawing?" or whatever, so having myself, the character, do that was intuitive.

The difference between this and actually giving tours or teaching is what I'm saying and how the audience is reacting. For instance, it's completely true that a huge bulk of the artists in the museum are men, and white men, and straight men, but no docent would say, "OK, the significant thing about this room is that these paintings were all made by white european dudes." However, while race, gender, class, appearance are clearly not irrelevant to who ends up in the museum, we generally discuss the work as though it's distinct from that. Unless the work is made by someone poor, queer, female, black, asian, etc, then all of a sudden biography is super-important.

SPURGEON: What do you have the most trouble with as a cartoonist just getting work down on the page?

CAMPBELL: Crippling self doubt and anxiety? Depression? Day jobs? Netflix? In the past month, I got married and finished/installed an exhibition, so I haven't made comics, but am going to get back in the saddle this week, I swear. Ugh, this question is stressing me out!

SPURGEON: Sorry! So which artist was the toughest call? Did you flip flop on any of them? Who was the biggest slam dunk?

CAMPBELL: There is one artist in the book who I deemed I could not determine the hotness of. I mean, the great thing about this book is that it's completely up to my subjective taste, so it generally was fairly easy to just make a decision.

The book was previewed on the Onion AV Club the other day, and one of the comments was just like "Let me explain to you why Mondrian wasn't hot." and then this person listed a bunch of reasons? Which was amazing. [Spurgeon laughs] I am praying that all of the criticism I get is exactly like that. "This book gets one star because obviously Sol LeWitt was really handsome and I'm offended that you said otherwise." If I can drag literary criticism down to my debased level, I will die happy.

SPURGEON: Please, please, please tell me you're doing with this comics artists next. Or sometime in the future. I don't even care if you end up doing it or not, just tell me you are.

CAMPBELL: I'm working on an autobiography that's just a definitive ranking of all male cartoonists' looks that Koyama can publish 100 years after I'm dead. The book is 1400 pages long.

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Hot Or Not: 20th Century Male Artists, Jessica Campbell, Koyama Press, softcover, 64 pages, 9781927668337, September 2016, $10.

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* cover to the book
* page from the book
* another page from the book
* the direct sequence cited
* art work by Campbell (below)

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