Cath Campbell and Jennifer Douglas: Mark-making and the human touch

Inside Cath Campbell’s tar paper shack, gallery visitors will find marks left by the artist. Some beams are labelled with names and numbers, as instructions on where to locate them during the construction of the frame, others have been scribbled upon by the artist while making calculations about the materials and their placement. These marks evidence that the construction of Campbell’s installation was not only a creative process, but also manual labour.

Campbell’s marks expose the nature of that manual process, revealing it to involve planning and calculation. Each mark reveals a different stage in the process, breaking it down, exposing the different stages of construction. In this way, the marks tell a story of a sequence of events that took place as part of the erection of the shack. The authenticity of the artist’s experience contributes to the overall authenticity of the shack, connecting it more closely to the migrant dwellings on which it is based.

Campbell “made a conscious decision to keep [the marks] visible”, as evidence that the shack is handmade, at every stage of development and construction.  “I like to leave some trace of that process”, she explains, “as that trace tells the viewer that it’s me doing the sums, not a machine or a computer or someone else”. Conscious that a shack could, nowadays, be pre-fabricated or mass-produced, the marks are a way of proving her authorship of the building, while simultaneously evidencing the time and effort invested in her work, illustrating the physical and emotional investment that she has made in her project. This is a conscious decision to distance her work from the ready-mades that have, in the past, represented the “emancipation of the artist from manual labour” (Dzalto, 2010, p. 205)

The marks help to reinforce the relationship between Campbell’s installation and the story of dustbowl migrants that she seeks to tell. Revealing the shack to be handmade, Cambell has highlighted similarities between her own process and the activities of migrants, who would have gone through a similar process in the construction of their own dwellings. The shack thereby achieves a kind of authenticity, not only in the materials but in the experiences of the artist who laboured in its construction.

While Campbell has toiled in the construction of the shack leading up to the exhibition, in its current setting, her labour is not directly visible. In the clean, dust-free gallery space, the shack is notably free from signs of ongoing construction works, or of any other ongoing inhabitation or practical use. Iona Singh (2012) has observed the contrast between the “dirty, messy” artist’s studio, where the artist’s physical labour is visibly evident in his surroundings, and the “spotless”, gallery, where “there was no sign of this labor”. By leaving her marks visible, Campbell has brought this evidence of labour with her into to the gallery space.

Intensive physical labour is also evident on the other side of the gallery, in the work of Jennifer Douglas. Among Douglas’ large canvases are three bearing scratches, scrapes, holes, and other marks, representative of the wear-and-tear caused by feet moving across interior floors. These “marked upon” canvases, explains the artist, “relate directly to a once inhabited space” and “question our values of material matter.”

Like Campbell, Douglas has created these marks herself, but her message is very different. In contrast to Campbell, Douglas’ marks do not represent her own presence, but rather, the presence of others. While Campbell imagines herself in the context of dust-bowl migration, building her shack as they would have built their own homes, Douglas imagines her canvas relocated to a populated space. Her marks are intended to index a crowd, passing through the spaces that are represented on her canvases. Her mark-making is a destructive process, eroding the paint and tearing the canvas, in representation of the destructive power of everyday actions.

Douglas’ artist’s tools have become a substitute for the shoes and other objects that scrape along a floor. In this way, she draws parallels between the materiality of the real world and of the process of art-making. In contrast to Campbell’s marks, which directly evidence the artist’s actions, these marks might be considered inauthentic: Douglas has masqueraded as others in the production of these marks, and they are designed to evoke visions of events that have not happened. Douglas’ works mirror reality’s materiality, while at the same time asserting themselves as representations, not reproductions. Her marks are both real and unreal; concrete, but fabricated.

Contrasting these two approaches calls into question the relationship between marks, materiality, and authenticity. While Campbell’s tar paper shack suggests a relationship between concreteness and authenticity, when the viewer moves across the gallery to observe Douglas’ work, this perception is disrupted. Douglas reminds us that art-making is often primarily about representation, and that marks that can be read as “evidence” of events are actually storytelling devices.

Dzalto, D. (2010), “Creation vs. Techne: The Inner Conflict of Art”, in Coohill, P. T (ed.), Art Inspiring Transmutations of Life, London: Springer, pp. 199-212.
Singh, I. (2012) Color, Facture, Art and Design: Artistic Technique and the Precisions of Human Perception, Hants: Zero Books.

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