Shaggy Rug Stories
Written by Nina Wexelblatt
Essay Section 1
It’s hard to manifest progress, but Chicago has a long history of trying. Just after a world war and against a background of the Great Depression, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 marched toward the future under the banner of a hopeful subtitle: “A Century of Progress.” The fair’s cheery exhibitions laid the groundwork for what it meant to be modern. Displays spanned the industrial (a functioning Chevrolet production line) to the domestic (a newfangled electric dishwasher). Presenting these disparate projects under a single experiential umbrella seemed to suggest a parity between public and private forms of labor—a flattening of old hierarchies.
The fair’s message, like any good ideological project, was bolstered by its rich visual culture. American artist Hildreth Meière painted a sixty-foot-long mural titled Progress of Women, or The Onward March of Women, in the Social Science Hall as part of the National Council for Women’s exhibit. In the mural, orderly Art Deco women march onward from behind allegorical prison bars on the left to the liberation of “greater social justice” on the right. A takeaway book accompanied the mural and included written descriptions of the mural’s three sections. An early portion of the descriptions is telling: “The woman of 1833 confined to the home and centered solely in her family / She steps over the threshold into a field of wider interest.” These ladies are on the go, and just beyond the doors of their homes, the world is there to greet their interested step!
Essay Section 2
Not far from the fair, at the Art Institute of Chicago, was another celebration of modernity: A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture Lent from American Collections. The exhibition included examples spanning from thirteenth-century European masterpieces to contemporaneous European and American work, with a particularly strong emphasis on the female nude across mediums. Robert B. Harshe, the Art Institute’s director at the time, wrote that “progress” in this case meant to celebrate, among other things, the acceleration of American collecting practices—how many more of those nude women were purchased to place over the mantelpiece?—over the previous hundred years. In other words, it was a time during which Americans got very good at consolidating ownership of culture in general, especially images of women.
Essay Section 3
How do these two events square with one another? If history really were a linear march of empowered women stepping over any number of thresholds, why at that very moment were the galleries of the city’s most powerful and prestigious art institution full of women’s bodies, painted or sculpted almost exclusively by men and owned by very rich patrons? As it turns out, progress isn’t a continuous thread so much as a raggedy blanket, providing well for a select few people while leaving countless others out in the cold.
Or perhaps “progress” looks more like a roll of industrial carpet, discarded from some trade show, cut up, and glued on a slab of wood. At least, that’s the proposition of Chicago-based artist Jessica Campbell (Canadian, b. 1985), whose carpet paintings pluck moments out of the narrative flow of time and piece them back together with cartoonish disjunction.
In Chicago Works: Jessica Campbell at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the artist explores her personal connections to the great Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871–1945). Though Carr never achieved the same stature as her male peers in her own lifetime, her paintings forged a visual language that would become essential to Canadian national (and colonial) identity. Growing up in Carr’s hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, Campbell encountered Carr’s legacy everywhere. The Modernist’s imagery pervaded the region so extensively that Campbell felt it had become a bore: Oh look, another Emily Carr. In a suite of new works, Campbell looks afresh. She revisits her relationship with her artistic predecessor through an immersive carpet mural, a printed comic, charcoal and ink drawings, and a large rug displayed on the gallery floor. While the focus of the exhibition is specific, its practices and themes extend into Campbell’s interests in cartooning, satire, and art history. These elements combine to comment on sexism, social advancement, and myths of progress on both individual and societal scales.
Essay Section 4
Campbell’s is an avowedly feminist project. Unlike the World’s Fair, which insisted that women’s work was legitimized by industrial investment, feminist praxis from the twentieth century onward—from the mass demonstration to the consciousness-raising group to the herstory lesson—has insisted on the inherently political nature of the personal experience. Campbell’s work is likewise more than just a plea for personal visibility; after all, the nudes in the Art Institute didn’t have the chance to hide much. Ultimately, she tells a story about storytelling in a collective tense: the looping, heaping narratives of women’s lives are not linear but are instead constantly snipped up and pasted back together alongside those of the past.
Carr Chapel (2018), the mural that anchors the exhibition, features twenty-four poignant, funny, and occasionally grotesque scenes that interweave Campbell’s own formative—and at times traumatic—personal experiences with moments from Carr’s biography. The two artists’ lives intertwine in a number of ways. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, nearly a century apart, they converge artistically through their interests in cartooning and rugmaking, and in sensibility through a certain self-effacing wit. Carr’s ubiquity rolled out like a rug beneath Campbell’s artistic upbringing, her ambient swirls creating an internal, mental landscape as much as they represented the actual wilderness of western Canada. This internalization—and ultimately, indentification—is reflected in the mural as well. While period dress and other cues of visual culture distinguish the two women’s stories somewhat, the juxtaposition of their stories at times makes them indistinguishable: whose hands, for instance, are holding open the pages of a comic in Scorned as Timber, Beloved of Sky? Would it change things to know the answer?
Essay Section 5
The mural’s immersive format and color scheme were inspired by the fourteenth-century frescoes by Giotto (Italian, c. 1266–1337) in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, paintings that Campbell considers predecessors to the narrative and visual form of comics. The fresco’s registers communicated religious doctrine wordlessly—expressive, indeed, much in the same way as a comic strip. Likewise, most of the stories Campbell recounts in the mural are told without words, making incredibly personal stories legible and relatable to viewers regardless of their familiarity with the artists’ complex lives. The lofty frescoes lining the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel tell narratives from the life of Christ in temporal order, from birth to death. By contrast, Campbell’s bathmat homage is shaggily irreverent. The carpet mural crystalizes its stories into instants of peak absurdity: in Vancouver Street, a young Campbell defecates on the floor and blames it on the dog, and in Woo, Carr delightedly outfits her pet monkey in a dress. Vibrant, colorful, and richly textured, the carpet also dampens sound in the room. The chapel-like atmosphere allows us to consider imagery that is rarely given space for serious contemplation: the sometimes pathetic, sometimes triumphant, and always strange lives of women.
Vancouver Street by Jessica Campbell
Essay Section 6
Unlike Giotto’s story of Christ, Campbell’s mural is no meditation on a singular savior. As it jump-cuts between multiple perspectives and timelines, the artists’ twinned lives become referenda on broader patterns, stepping over the threshold of their own worlds into one of collective experience. Moments of general demeaning—a grope, a flash, an off-color remark—sting across time and space. When we confront frank depictions of a young Campbell encountering a man exposing himself on a pier (The Welcome Man) and Carr being grabbed from behind while painting at her easel (The Brutal Telling), these offenses feel eternal, even universal. In that way, they also bring us together in solidarity. If the scenes of the mural are comforting in their difficulty, it is because of their relatability to a common experience of Western girlhood and the more general realization that even the most traumatic events in our lives have precedent.
The Brutal Telling by Jessica Campbell
Essay Section 7
This precedent of shared experience is spatial, as well. Campbell’s autobiographical scenes played out in the same landscapes Carr occupied. For instance, a childhood friend of Campbell’s lived in an apartment building Carr once owned, so the two children would sneak up into the attic to see an otherwise inaccessible mural Carr had painted. Later, Campbell’s first art show would take place at the People’s Gallery at the Emily Carr House, now recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada. Campbell reminds us that there is no terra incognita, even in our most devastatingly personal moments: either you’re making out on a beach painted by a famous artist, or you’re breaking up in front of a building she frequented. By tangling her stories up with Carr’s, Campbell suggests that as much as the past haunts our present, ghost-like, we are also doggedly following the trails of our forebears, on the march like bumbling, belated stalkers.
Campbell exposes our particular condition of progress, whatever that might mean, through a medium that could be called the shaggy rug story: everything depicted in her carpeted paintings is true in some sense, but sometimes it appears larger than life, full of over-determination and visual puns. When there is text in these works, it is diegetic, onomatopoetic, and winkingly archetypical. Of course the ship behind the man exposing his penis on a public dock is called “Seaman!” And of course the comic nerd insisting on Campbell’s attention at a book fair in Forsaken has “DRAGON” written askew across the armpit of his shirt! In the tradition of the best comedians, Campbell plays with the idea of a faithful retelling, moving away from total accuracy and toward precision of the story’s true spirit. Cartoon truth comes through in the aggregate, the heap.
Forsaken by Jessica Campbell
Essay Section 8
Campbell’s use of text returns in a takeaway printed comic that accompanies and complicates the narratives of the mural by extending each of its individual scenes into full-page narratives composed of multiple panels. Rather than providing a key to understanding the source material of the carpet mural, Campbell complicated these more complexly rendered stories even further: she captioned them with a parallel, non-diegetic narrative of companionship and loss drawn from Carr’s personal writing. Expanded and juxtaposed, the comic provides an alternate—and equally valid—way to parse the mural’s scenes. A continuation of the two stories’ overlap, this gesture has politics: opening the door to multiple perspectives on the same basic facts, acknowledging strands of complexity, connection, and contradiction.
Carr, like Campbell, was an expressive and deft cartoonist. In addition to publishing political cartoons, she drew loosely autobiographical caricatures in her journal both at home and while traveling through Canada and Europe. Unpublished during her lifetime, the journal drawings provide a lucid glimpse into Carr’s self-image and the broader domestic experience of women in the early twentieth century. Satirizing Victorian life as she saw it, Carr depicted women with rich and relatable inner lives; her characters jointly adopt cats, annoy their knitting companions, and observe the bustling public street.
Essay Section 9
Campbell has re-created some of Carr’s unpublished cartoons—but instead of revealing them for audiences to see, she covered them in an obfuscating layer of charcoal. The results test the limits of visibility, reminding us of the cartoons’ origins as private expressions while also questioning the access women are afforded to craft their own public representations. The charcoal and ink illustrations also act as a link back to the Scrovegni Chapel—beyond its colorful frescoes, the chapel is renowned for Giotto’s pioneering use of grisaille, a method of rendering images using only one color. Campbell’s monochrome charcoal drawings allude to this historical technique. And these contemporary illustrations, too, display scenes of private devotion: not to any particular religious doctrine, but rather to the incisive observation of the daily life of women, whose experience is as rich as it is valid on its own terms.
Fittingly, Carr herself lived a fiercely independent life. She was an avid traveler at a time when women were often discouraged, no matter what an aspirational mural suggested, from going out into the world alone. She arrived by train to Chicago on November 2, 1933, to see the Art Institute’s Century of Progress exhibition. Carr arrived, however, just one day after the exhibition had closed. She went home deeply disappointed, writing, “The Lord be praised! I leave Chicago tomorrow.” Carr called her experience in Chicago the “awfulest blow,” but it’s written with a wink; her journals and cartoons reveal her as a hilarious chronicler of indignities large and small. Campbell, too, arrived at the Art Institute of Chicago—in her case, for graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute—and she likewise takes dark humor seriously as a marker of self-knowledge. In the face of humiliation, discrimination, and abuse, the women she depicts identify themselves beyond their socially determined roles as muse or matron; instead, they are known by their observant, and even hilarious, orientation toward the world around them, in the way they see it. Lord be praised indeed!
On the floor of the gallery housing the charcoal drawings is Campbell’s A Century of Progress (2018). This rug, which is depicted in Campbell's work Resurrection, uses cartoonishly stenciled carpet inlay to recreate nudes isolated from works Carr missed at the 1933 Art Institute exhibition. Moving female figures by artists such as Titian, Henri Matisse, Felice Carena, and Bernard Karfiol from the vaunted walls onto the floor, the rug satirizes the power dynamic at play in the Western art historical canon, which largely ignores women as artists while celebrating them as subjects of the male gaze. Installed in the center of the room with the charcoal drawings, we as viewers of these works get to stomp over and onto these demeaning depictions on our way to see something both more subtle and more revealing. The work stages a much more empowering update of the credulous World’s Fair mural of the ladies on the march: instead of stepping over some historically inevitable threshold, visitors get to step on the inequities of history itself.
Resurrection by Jessica Campbell
For Campbell, the project of listening closely to women’s divergent yet overlapping stories is a provocation: reading, shifting position, maybe going for a casual stroll over the work of some famous men . . . and then reading again. The point is neither a confessional nor an exposé, but rather a fundamental reimagining of what it means to make things public, to look backward and forward all at once, to take a pratfall and keep going. Nearly one hundred years after the World’s Fair, what century of progress has taken place? It’s hard to say. For now, we keep telling stories in fits and starts, laughing.
Woo by Jessica Campbell
The Welcome Man by Jessica Campbell
- Women Through the Century. (New York: National Council of Women of the United States, 1933): n.p.
- Art Institute of Chicago, Catalogue of a Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture: Lent from American Collections. Chicago: Lakeside Press, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1933.
- Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009.52.