Karin Campbell’s glistening paintings of disjointed mouths, eyes, and teeth hide in plain site. Both densely layered and sparse, her recent abstract canvases are cartoonish takes on the line between exposition and concealment. On the occasion of her first solo exhibition, at 106 Green in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, artist Nick Irzyk talked to Campbell about desperate humor, her early performance pieces, the painting process, and the different speeds of making and looking .
Nick Irzyk: I’m curious about the title of your show, “Sunnyside.”
Karen Campbell: I wanted to evoke some of the imagery in the paintings: the stars, rainbows, grinning teeth. At the same time I wanted to suggest that these images might block or mask a darker side too.
NI: There is a joy or an ecstatic quality to many of the paintings, and then there are some that are more stark and gloomy.
KC: People often tell me that the paintings look so full of joy.
NI: How do you feel about that?
KC: I don’t see them in that way exactly. I see the paintings more akin to desperate slapstick humor.
NI: If anything there is a goofy grimness in the paintings.
KC: Grimacing and grinning! That’s closer.
NI: I also think of those really cheesy tooth paste commercials where the teeth are so white its unnatural. It feels like a front.
KC: Yes, there’s the Colgate ad where her smile has this terrific twinkle gleam. And Dentyne gum too. I love those. Those were ideas for the paintings for sure.
NI: You have a maximalist approach to some of the paintings and a more minimal or provisional touch to others, how do you navigate between laying down a ton of information then making a more reduced composition?
KC: It all depends on the path the painting takes. It’ll start with a general idea, like the gleam on a tooth in the Colgate commercial and go on from there. If the marks I make at the beginning are enough to hold the space of the painting, I’ll leave it. I’ll look at it until it irritates me. Then I’ll do something else to it. This can take two hours or two months or more. There’s a painting in my studio now that is maybe twenty big marks. I liked it so I left it. I’m still waiting to be irritated by it. Usually when they are so minimal right away they are too obvious, they fall flat and the space doesn’t turn the way I want it to turn.
NI: You have a rich arsenal of moves in your paintings, being equal parts additive and subtractive, all the scratching, blending and wiping involved.
KC: I love scraping paint off. Sometimes I get in there and sand it all off. I do my due diligence. But it was liberating for me to realize that I didn’t have to cover everything up. That there were no mistakes, but that somehow sometimes one mark or mess just tips the odds and everything makes sense. Paint sticks are great too for creating different speeds and durations of the marks. I love getting in there with my hands too. I love these gardening gloves I use. I think it’s important to let the viewer in to see how you make the painting. It’s not only “yes, it took this time,” but it also changes the speed in which you’re looking at it, like there’s one speed here, another here.
NI: I want to talk a little bit about your performance work leading up to your inclusion in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.
KC: I was making cartoony photographs that were performative in nature. I dug a big hole and made this Wile E. Coyote kind of shape then photographed myself inside of it, face down, like I had fallen into it off of a cliff. At one point I had curators coming to visit my studio, I was terrified. I spoke to a friend of mine about the upcoming visit and I said I don’t think I would mind it so long as I was behind a door, or inside a closet talking to them—just being in the same room as them was just too much. He cracked up; we were both laughing. I had a show coming up and thought why not do a performance?
The gallery was in this row house space in Williamsburg. I would stand by the window waiting for people to enter, when I saw them coming up the steps I would run into the closet and slide the door shut. Dean, the curator of that space would greet everyone by saying “Karin has gone into the closet and won’t come out, but she’s happy to talk to you.” So then a lot of people would come in and we’d talk.
NI: How did the conversations go?
KC: Most of them started with them asking me why I was inside a closet, about how the wall between us affected our conversation. It was really fun but exhausting at the same time. People would show up and just start hanging out, it was crazy.
At the 2002 Whitney Biennial I performed When I Close My Eyes. I sat on a chair with my eyes closed. My eyelids had really cartoony blue eyes painted on them. Obviously fake. Somehow this facsimile of an eye was enough of a connection for people to engage with me. Some even thought my eyes were open.
NI: So a very similar performance where there is a barrier of anonymity between you and the audience. Your paintings operate similarly, a lot of those ideas I see on the paintings, these cracks, ideas of hiding or covering up, the painted eyes, masks, layering.
KC: Yes. It’s amazing how these preoccupations persist no matter what the form.
About the artist: Karin Campbell has been living in New York since 1998 and was invited to present one of her performance pieces in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. She graduated from RISD (BFA) and Tyler (MFA), and her paintings have been exhibited in group shows at PS1, the Sculpture Center, the Queens Museum, and Brennan and Griffin, NYC. “Sunnyside” is Campbell’s first solo painting exhibition.
“Karin Campbell: Sunnyside,” 106 Green Gallery, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY. Through April 29, 2018.