Tammi Campbell converses with the aesthetic legacies of modernist and minimalist painting through a formal exploration of some of its visual and conceptual tropes, such as the grid, an obsession with the flattened picture plane, or the primacy of the art object, the results of which range from affectionate homage to witty subversion. Based in Saskatoon, Campbell is critically aware of modernism’s influence in her province. Saskatchewan is home to the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops, which hosted many of modernism’s key figures (painters Frank Stella and Barnett Newman, and notorious art critic Clement Greenberg among them) as faculty members during the mid-twentieth century. Saskatchewan was also the birthplace of Agnes Martin, with whom Campbell participates in a silent and sustained dialogue that transcends time and space.
Dear Agnes is a series of visual letters that serve as Tammi Campbell’s wordless communion with Martin. Beginning in 2010, Campbell would start each day in her studio by drawing a different variation of a grid in graphite on Japanese rag paper. Campbell would then write the salutation “Dear Agnes” in the top left corner, fold the drawing twice like a letter, and finally store it in sequence before proceeding with her day. Campbell completed her last letter to Martin on 31 December 2017. This near-daily practice has led to over 1,000 drawings, the final three months of which – 85 letters total – are on view at Esker.
The duration of Campbell’s letter-writing ritual reflects Agnes Martin’s seven-year hiatus from painting, from 1967 to 1974. Martin initially returned to artmaking with On a Clear Day (1973), a portfolio of thirty silkscreen prints on Japanese rag paper which, like Campbell’s letters, visually manifest the endless opportunities offered by the grid. Following the completion of On a Clear Day, Martin built a studio on her New Mexican mesa and resumed her painting practice. Dear Agnes is reflective of Campbell’s ongoing engagement with the visual language of modernism, while also operating as her homage to Agnes Martin, and the two artists’ mutual meditation on silence, ritual, and repetition within artistic practice.
Also included in the exhibition are several paintings from Campbell’s Monochrome series, which offer a truer sense of the scope of Campbell’s practice and of her dialogue with modernism. Placed on opposite walls as if in conversation, Campbell’s and Martin’s paintings reveal a shared interest in a serene and restrained colour palette and in visual and compositional simplicity that initially belies the true complexity of the work. Each of Campbell’s paintings appears to be wrapped in a layer of bubble wrap, packing tape, or corrugated cardboard, as if the work was installed prior to being unpacked. Closer inspection reveals that these compositions – bubblewrap, cardboard and all – are made entirely of acrylic paint, created through a process in which acrylic paint is fabricated into its intended shape and then wrapped around canvas.
Campbell invokes aesthetic tropes of modernism – the patterns created by her bubble wrap or cardboard are reminiscent of Martin’s grids or stripes – however, the final outcome is not abstraction, but rather astonishingly realistic renditions of abstract paintings. As Troy Gronsdahl observes, they are “paintings of paintings.”1. Through this subversion, Campbell slyly plays with our expectations of representation and of how a “finished” painting should look. The not-yet-unwrapped aesthetic of Campbell’s paintings also alludes to the labour inherent to an art exhibition – crating, shipping, care and handling, installation – that can go unrecognized in favour of the finished product. In so doing, Campbell calls into question the preciousness of the physical artwork and the ways in which it is ascribed value, a gesture that reveals the critical depth of Campbell’s meditation on the history of modern art, and the relevance of her introspection to the contemporary moment.
1. Troy Gronsdahl, At the Threshold of Appearances, 2016. Exhibition text
Mono/Chromatic (Saskatoon: College Art Galleries, University of Saskatchewan, 2016).