Untruth to Materials or Tammi Campbell’s Art After Modernism

Tammi Campbell is known for works that look like Modernist hard-edge paintings in progress, with particular focus on the Modernists’ use of tape. Included in this series are meticulous, half-finished greyscales where masked sections are readied for a new application of paint. Other pieces are explicitly based on Frank Stella’s signature stripe paintings but made with what appears to be masking tape alone. The works exist in a state of anticipation, awaiting the application of pigment and the eventual peeling off of all the tape. Campbell’s consistent use of masking tape as subject is the first clue that there is something special about this substance. Her online documentation depicts the curling bands of yellow-beige in an almost fetishistic light. The lens is zoomed up close and the camera is positioned perpendicular to the painting so as to document every rupture, wrinkle, tear and fold. You can even observe how the curling end of the tape lifts the top layer of the paper’s surface with it. This “tape” is an ingenious combination of acrylic paints and mediums that produce a substance near identical to the common painter’s tool. Newer work consists of the replication of paper itself using another careful combination of acrylic polymers. Campbell’s use of paint is not so much illusion as simulation, a trompe l’oeil that deceives as to the very nature of the object rather than following conventions of depiction.

“Dear Agnes,” 2014, 27.94 x 21.59 cm each. Collection of Mendel Art Gallery. Photograph: the artist. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

Campbell’s appeal to the Modernist tradition sets her firmly within its discourse even if her intent is not to continue in its trajectory per se. Because her work employs the artifice of the Modernist aesthetic, what is at stake in her production is its relation to truth. While Modernism is a very wide umbrella term, it has largely been associated with notions of truth, especially in the field of the visual arts. Through a process of experimentation, the artist would reduce the elements extrinsic to his or her given medium and achieve the most accurate or truthful exemplar of the art form. Of course, what was considered extrinsic to a specific medium varied from artist to artist, but a certain “truth to materials,” as the oft-repeated phrase goes, was a kind of common ground that united their efforts. This teleological structure later led to proclamations of the end of painting, the first pronouncement of which is attributed to Paul Delaroche when confronted with fledgling photography, as described in Douglas Crimp’s seminal 1981 essay of the same title. In this context, Campbell’s paintings might be understood as yet another nail in painting’s not yet buried coffin. No longer capable of pursuing the dangling carrot of transcendence, painting can only ever simulate itself. To use a term from Walter Robinson’s “Flipping and the Rise of Zombie Formalism” (Artspace Magazine, 2014), Campbell’s work might be construed as “undead painting,” though perhaps with a bit more of a bite.

Yet such an interpretation is appealing only to a point. The young artists Robinson cites, including New York-based Lucien Smith and LA-based Jacob Kassay, still speak to the materiality of paint even while attempting to subvert artistic value systems. They do this, for example, by using a variety of materials with their own concomitant value, such as silver. While there are some similarities between these artists’ paintings and Campbell’s works, such as the ease with which they function as “highend, hyper-contemporary design,” it is not to the materiality of paint, or making of any sort, that Campbell appeals to. Her use of paint is closer to a kind of abuse, at least by Modernist standards. It is the very denial of paint itself. Not only is the artist’s hand erased from her completed works but so is the very materiality of paint. Closer in spirit to her method is Pliny the Elder’s anecdote of an ancient painting competition in Historia Naturalis where Zeuxis and Parrhasius of Athens compete to determine the greater artist. When Zeuxis unveils his painting of grapes even the birds fly down to peck at them. Confident that he will win, he turns to Parrhasius and asks him to pull aside the veil covering his work, only to learn that the veil itself is paint. Campbell’s “tape,” as well as her newer “paper” series, lie precisely in this level of illusion, or perhaps more accurately, deception. Where Modernism championed a truth to materials, Campbell indulges in untruth so as to present the viewer not with an aesthetic experience as much as an “a-ha” moment of comprehension.

But surely what it means to be true to paint, and painting, has changed and expanded after the medium persisted past its own so-called death. Illusion, it may be argued, is a sort of truth to paint as well. Master techniques like chiaroscuro and sfumato not only serve to create a dramatic pictorial world, but also explore the many possibilities of paint. In What Painting Is (Routledge, 1998) James Elkins notes that “every painting captures a certain resistance of paint, a prodding gesture of the brush, a speed and insistence in the face of mindless matter: and it does so at the same moment, and in the same thought, as it captures the expression of a face.” Arguably, by hiding its material character Campbell merely shows another one of paint’s many possibilities, and that argument is technically correct. But in every other case mentioned, we can recognize paint as paint, even when we at first marvel at how much it looks like a photograph, as in the case of Chuck Close. In Campbell’s case there is not necessarily an opening that betrays the artifice, a fact that has been, off and on, a cause of concern for the artist. In repeated attempts to leave hints for the viewer, she has employed various strategies including the replication of her studio in the gallery space. But in the end it is not her process that counts, nor does it matter if everyone knows precisely what she’s done. The work is, after all, intended to deceive. She does not engage a dialogue with the material but rather with painting as an historical practice, and perhaps more broadly, art as a network of cultural codes and specialist knowledge. Her medium is not paint as much as Modernism itself. For Campbell, paint is only a signifier of value and meaning.

“Paper,” 2014, acrylic paint, 27.94 x 21.59 cm. Photograph: the artist. Courtesy Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

In contrast with the interpretation of paint solely as a carrier of meaning is the illusion that her works are about materiality and the act of making. By depicting the progress of a painting, she implicitly references the language of materials. In the case of her “blank paper” series, they look like pieces that have not even been started. The work-in-progress, however, is by now another aesthetic in the vocabulary of painting, and a blank sheet of paper or canvas is a tabula rasa pregnant with future possibility. For Campbell, the idea of process is rendered a fetish whose function is far different from the goals of Process art, which nevertheless might have helped develop a taste for the aesthetic of incompletion. Rather than fetishizing the art object, Process art championed the act of making as the moment when the ‘art’ took place. In-process aesthetic decisions are revealed, and the work is rendered temporal rather than transcendent, as a timeline rather than product. Of course this is not the case in Campbell’s meticulously finished renditions of incompletion. She carefully utilizes the aesthetic of making in a way that indulges high art sensibility, while simultaneously knowing better. In short, we can have our cake and eat it too. The double remove Campbell exercises in her work, that of the material deception and the replica of art history, intuitively blends into our conception and appreciation of art. This is to say that the artist makes advantageous use of a widespread nostalgia for the forward moving urgency of Modernism, while mitigating it with an irony available only to those who are “in-the-know.”

“Paper,” 2014, acrylic paint, 27.94 x 21.59 cm. Photograph: the artist. Courtesy Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

The newer paper works take the fetishization of process even further. The replicas of paper are remarkably similar to the real thing. They have a tooth, a visible fibre, and even the dust that has accidentally tainted her raw mixture of acrylic polymers furthers the illusion of cellulose made into sheets. But, in effect, the sheets are plastic and it is only upon touch, or if they are draped over an object, that the acrylic properties reveal themselves. The attentive viewer who is familiar with her strategy might search for discrepancies, and perhaps they can be found in the millimetre high edge of the paper that looks just a little too slick and milky to be true. By making paint into sheets of white paper, Campbell refers back to the foundational materials used to make art. In the white sheet of paper, we have the assumed neutral ground upon which anything can happen. To the artist, this is the most exciting moment, filled with possibility, but one that often ends in disappointment prompting the artist to make more. By bringing the starting point to such a degree of finish, Campbell freezes that moment of potential into an actual fetish, prolonging the sense of anticipation. This, it seems to me, is the paradigmatic Modernist moment—the threshold of anticipation into the next discovery of the unknown.

The lack of obvious materiality in Campbell’s practice makes it easy to imagine her work being mass produced, and thus further removed from the act of painting as such. While by necessity her work is currently handmade, it is not predicated on craft and is thus closer to a process of manufacture. Her studio practice is more like a laboratory where prototypes are developed in search of the next new product. There are boards of carefully demarcated test strips of acrylic mixture, each moving closer and closer to the desired end result. Each mixture of paint is itemized, its formula recorded and its wear and tear over time documented. After months of testing and many failures, a product is made and real production can begin.

What You See Is What You See (After Stella), 2014, acrylic on museum board, 121.92 x 121.92 cm. Photograph: the artist. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, Montréal.

Tammi Campbell does not make paintings as much as she makes objects out of paint, or perhaps even fetish objects. This is especially true of her “paper” made solely of paint, rather than the usual paint applied to a base. These works literally have no ground, and metaphorically speaking, this means there is no solid basis against which we can measure their value. They function at a remove from art, utilizing its cultural code as a means of contemplating or subverting it. Inasmuch as Campbell makes paint masquerade as tape or paper, I think it would not be outlandish to claim that Campbell makes objects that pretend to be art, and these objects hold a predominantly discursive rather than aesthetic function. The pieces are not works in progress, they do not speak to the process of making, nor are they painting’s swan song. Each mark that would be a trace of making or thinking through material is in fact emulated to make it look as if a dialogue were engaged. But there is no dialogue here; the paint does precisely what it is told to do. Her medium is Modernism and its continuing legacy, understood as a series of cultural codes that catalyzed the formation of a certain type of art and continues to affect cultural production to this day. Its influences range from design, fashion and architecture, to various postmodern artistic strategies and critiques. The inheritors of this legacy include the so-called Zombie Formalists who continue in its footsteps, as well as artists who approach it with more scepticism and self-reflective irony. Examples of the latter include John Wood and Paul Harrison, who make hilarious videos of interaction with minimalist art, or the work of John Baldessari who famously sung Sol LeWitt’s sentences on conceptual art. Each negotiates this legacy in his or her own way, some by continuing to believe in it, others by making fun of it, and yet others, like Campbell, by questioning the enterprise as a whole.

“Works in Progress (studies), ” 2011, acrylic on matboard, 29.2 x 29.2 cm. Photograph: the artist. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

It would be wrong, however, to see her production as only critical. Campbell is undeniably seduced by the legacy she references, even as she wrestles with her place within it. It would be exceptionally difficult to otherwise explain the amount of labour that goes into the making of her work, even as they look, on the surface, like unfinished studies, peeling tape or blank sheets of paper. Her paint-objects might, in many respects, mirror her own inability to paint in the face of the history she is negotiating, and so she has found a way to insert herself directly into it. There is also a curious specificity to Campbell’s relation to this history that is a product of the Prairie regionalism in which she matured as an artist. In 1962 Clement Greenberg conducted a workshop at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan’s famed artist colony started in 1955. His influence on the local art scene remains to this day. Some might argue that the weight of this international art critic still depresses the artistic landscape, cementing its marginal position. But many regional modernisms were formed through imitation of what was perceived to be the centre. This led to a flourishing of various formalist spin-offs around the world that are now getting the attention they deserve, but it also resulted in derivative offshoots that are often seen as not only at odds with local histories, but as lower quality versions of an international style. Campbell’s impulse to imitate thus humorously falls in line with the sort of regional self-consciousness that attempts to fit itself into the dominant discourse. But her aping of international art is conceived and executed with such a high degree of finish that it has become a clever strategy in its own right. Her works, in their material virtuosity, pay homage to the “greats” while simultaneously thumbing their noses at them.

“Works in Progress (studies), ” 2011, acrylic on matboard, 29.2 x 29.2 cm. Photograph: the artist. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

Robinson writes that in his 40 years in the art world he’s met plenty of irreverent artists, “but never one who thought, first and foremost, that he was running a scam.” While it is the remarkable resilience of the art world, and for that matter any capitalist system, that allows it to subsume various forms of critique, I still like to think of Campbell’s work as a kind of scam. Her paint-objects are made with the irreverence of a con-artist. They are like counterfeits or high-end imitations reinserted back into the artistic value system and whose presence simultaneously puts that system into question. Her works are not forgeries of any particular piece as much as knock-offs of art itself, or at the very least, a certain narrative of art. A fake can be identified when its double is discovered in the system, but the system as a structure remains intact. Counterfeits, like the increasingly better-made Chinese rip-offs, highlight the contingency of the very system in which they are exchanged. Lacking a prescriptive Modernist forward-moving narrative—or in monetary terms, a gold standard—the counterfeit stands in equal status to its original. This is not to say Campbell subverts the system; she simply uses it for what it is. And this is also not to say she exists outside it nor that her gesture is a highly calculated or cynical project. She exists within its limits and struggles to find her place within it too.

“Works in Progress,” 2013, acrylic on museum board, 121.92 x 121.92 cm. Photograph: Matt Ramage. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

“Works in Progress,” 2013, acrylic on museum board, 121.92 x 121.92 cm. Photograph: Matt Ramage. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

Perhaps Campbell’s work brings us back to the many perennial questions of art, including the biggest one: what exactly is art? What is the relevance or value of medium specificity? How does one continue to paint or make work after Modernism? She does not set out to answer these questions largely due to the fact they cannot be answered, nor would it be of any benefit if they were. They do remain, however, the questions all artists must navigate, tackle and perhaps eventually let go of whenever they enter the studio. Her project is thus as much personal as it is conceptual. By reifying process, the tropes of artistic appearances, she asks herself what it means to make art, while also asking the rest of us how we come to value it. ❚

Volume 34, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #134, published May 2015.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.