THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
New Art Examineer: How are you doing in this strange time?
Jessica Campbell: I've been walking a lot. I have a dog. We go for like two and a half hour long walks because why not? Most of my work was really piecemeal kind of freelance stuff, so a lot of that dried up. I've been traveling a lot. I moved to Wisconsin last summer, and since I moved here I’ve been traveling a lot, going to Chicago or wherever there are gigs—and so that stopped. So this is the longest I have been in Wisconsin since moving here, which is interesting.
I've always, always, always had a day job up until being in Wisconsin, where I’ve just been piecing things together. It's very much like I'm just kind of unemployed now, I’ve had work. I had an essay project, and I’m working on a book right now. I have a tiny advance for that, but it’s not very much.
NAE: Is this a graphic novel you are working on?
JC: Yes, it’s a graphic novel. And I’ve had exhibitions, but they're all kind of indefinitely postponed. There are some that are years in the future, so I could be working on that, but I don’t know, it’s been strange. My husband and I, we have a house here that has a commercial space in it, and so we are opening a gallery and bookstore. It was supposed to open on April 10th, but that didn’t happen, of course. There is some work to do at that space, but it also feels like a lot of that urgency is gone because we really have no clue when it'll actually open.
NAE: That’s exciting though.
Yes, it’s the perfect thing to work on right now. I'm sanding the floors. I didn't work on it today, but we have to sand the floors down and oil them and do all this manual labor stuff that is mindless but productive. And so that's been cool.
NAE: So you said you’ve been traveling a lot. Have you been traveling while these social distancing and lockdown things been happening?
Oh no. Up until then and since we moved. When social distancing started, I had three visiting artist trips planned to go to different universities. One was in town and two trips were out of town. They were all indefinitely postponed or cancelled. Yeah. It's a bummer. I mean, I don't know. I feel like the kind of work that I've lost is really typical. Everyone I’ve talked to has lost work, or I mean some people are working from home, which is lucky, but I think it would be hard to concentrate working a full-time job from home right now.
NAE: How are you reacting to and thinking about this cultural moment?
JC: Personally, there are things happening in my life and other people’s lives that have affected the way I interact with art, kind of immensely. There [are] things like loss of wages, there's the same anxiety about paying rent and how you're going to eat and what’s going to happen going forward. Even if you have enough savings to make it through a couple months, what happens when that ends and you need to get a new job? So there’s this kind of anxiety, and then there are other things just in my life that have been happening like a family member died, not from corona but I think it impacted the kind of care that he was given in the hospital—and they don't know why he died and they didn't do an autopsy because of corona. No one could visit or anything like that. There's not going to be a memorial service anytime soon. So that’s been really painful and difficult, and other people have gone through really similar things, and it’s really exacerbated by corona. And the other thing for me that’s been really stressful is immigration. I’m a permanent resident here, and I need to renew my green card, and so Trump's executive order barring people from getting or renewing green cards has been really anxiety-inducing. Since I’m married to an American it might not apply to me, but I'm still not sure what's going to happen. So there are all these things going on that are byproducts of corona that [have] impacted just my life, which of course then impacts my feelings about art, and I find at the moment, it’s getting a little better this week. I’m starting [to] feel normal-ish again but the past few months, my mantra when watching TV or whatever is, I don't want to feel anything. I don’t want to feel sad, or I just want to watch stupid action movies or comedies. I don't need to feel anything. I don't want to watch celebrities singing John Lennon or whatever. It's so not appealing to me. And then all this stuff in the art world with online viewing rooms and stuff—I mean, I understand from a gallery perspective why they're doing that because they need to make money somehow and no one is buying art at the moment. But that also just feels really sad to me. And I don’t have art in the Frieze online viewing room, but I have friends who had solo booths at galleries that are now online viewing room. It’s already so sad making art for—I should be careful what I say here maybe but—it’s already a weird position to be making art that’s going to be in an art show because you maybe make something that’s only going to be seen in this one venue for 5 days that's basically like a big shopping mall. And then in an ideal world, I guess you sell it and then it’s never seen in public ever again. I think that's already a hard or kind of depressing state of affairs, but then making it so that no one's ever going to see it physically, it only appears online, I think that’s even more depressing. But you know, it's like we're all teaching classes through Zoom or whatever. I mean everyone's just trying to figure out how to cope.
NAE: As an educator you have had to switch to remote teaching, which must be hard. I’ve heard teachers saying that students just aren’t as engaged.
JC: I have friends who have been talking to me about that, but the thing is the students are also in the middle of a global pandemic—they are also dealing with lost work and family situations and many of them having to leave their on-campus housing. It's just understandable that everyone—[teachers], students, everyone—is distracted at the moment… I think everyone should just kind of go easy on themselves a little bit. Just try to stay alive.
NAE: You had some cartons in the New Yorker recently that are prescient in this crisis. But you actually drew them a few years ago?
JC: It’s depressingly telling that my pre-pandemic life and pandemic life are nearly identical in a lot of ways.
NAE: Can you talk about the relationship between the text and images in these drawings?
JC: Comics as a medium is a combination of words and pictures, right, and in an ideal world, the way that comics function is that you’re getting information from both the images and the text and that they aren't reiterating each other. So you don't have a picture of a cat that says this is a cat or something like that. That’s something I'm really interested in with comics. I made a comic book for my MCA show when it was up last year, and the same sort of thing happened. There are text and images that sort of related [to] and contradicted each other at different times. I think the New Yorker piece a little bit simpler than that one. It's just like [the] images from Instagram, and so it's supposed to be kind of just this, you know, this constant scrolling and the experience that I think a lot of us have that you're, like, you’re thinking and looking at multiple tabs and scrolling at your phone sort of at the same time. So it’s just meant to be representative of that basically.
NAE: Are there any other issues that come to mind for you like people in the world that you know or that aren’t getting talked about enough or that you think need to be elevated in the conversation?
JC: Yeah, I think what this has done is really emphasized the need for things like universal health care or Medicare for all as it’s being called in the States. Universal basic income would be a solution to a problem like this. We should just have that. And there are countries that are talking about that. I think Canada is talking seriously about implementing that. I think Sweden is talking about it as well. I don't think it will ever happen in the States because people are too conservative here.
NAE: Are there things about the art world being revealed in this crisis that were previously overlooked or not considered?
JC: It does seem like there's a lot of like flailing happening. I think that there are these things that happen where the society that we live in feels natural. It feels like things that are happening happen because it's natural and that's the best way for things [to] operate, even like art fairs or something, right? My experience working in the commercial galleries is that most the galleries’ money comes from art fairs rather than the actual exhibitions. Having artists or a visitor to the gallery seemed to be the things that are most important about the gallery. I think even the directors of the gallery, curators, those are the things that they care about the most, but in order to finance the gallery operations, art fairs have become necessary. And it just feels like that's the natural state of things. That's just how things are, and there's no way we can rethink this structure. I think with this crisis art fairs are impossible or they’re only possible through these, like, online viewing rooms, which seem super tedious or dorky to me.
It really makes it seem like there is a way for us to envision a different society or a different functioning for art. I think now would be a really good moment to just rethink society. Let’s think about things like taking care of everyone's basic needs. Let's just try to make sure that the whole population is housed, like housing for everyone, you know, healthcare for everyone. Free and accessible education. Those seem like the most crucial things. We can talk about prison abolition and police abolition. I don't know, why can't we have those conversations? I suspect, well I guess, I don’t know, if this crisis ends in two weeks, I think everything will kind of go back to how it was. But if it keeps going, who knows what will happen? It would be a good time to kind of reevaluate how we live, and how the art world functions.
NAE: When all this is over and things are normal again, what’s the thing you want to do the most?
JC: Well, I want to go to a restaurant. I want to eat food that I didn’t cook. I don't know. I want to go see my family. I would like to go back to Canada and see my family really badly. There are things just in my life that’d I’d like to do like the visiting artist talks and exhibitions in stuff that I have planned. But mostly it's just like go to restaurants. I really like working in coffeeshops too because I do writing as like half my work, or working on a book or whatever, which I can do outside of the house… I find it really helpful to go to a coffeeshop and not be in my same space where I am constantly getting distracted and thinking I should do dishes or whatever.
I know. I’ve been applying but I'm like, is this going to happen? Do residencies exist still? I want to go to a party. That’s what I want to do. I want to have a party or go to a party. I really miss parties.
Jessica Campbell, Eating Cheesies Off the Couch, 2019. Acrylic rug on panel, 26" x 24". Photograph by James Prinz.
Jessica Campbell, Oh, This Old Thing? It's Just…, Cartoon, no date or media listed.
Jessica Campbell, The Welcome Man, 2018. Acrylic rug on panel, 36" x 48". Photograph by James Prinz.
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