What Is?

 Tammi Campbell;  Monochrome with Bubble Wrap and Clear Packing Tape ; Acrylic on linen; 40” x 32"; 2016

Tammi Campbell; Monochrome with Bubble Wrap and Clear Packing Tape; Acrylic on linen; 40” x 32"; 2016


Public Access presents WHAT IS?, an exhibition featuring works with materials that lie. Artists include Felipe Steinberg, Karen Reimer, Tammi Campbell and Ai Weiwei*. From the coin dies of a speculative ISIS currency, to a romance novel in which words have been rearranged alphabetically, these artists’ works assert themselves materially in ways that are misleading, affirming, dangerous, or strange. Each exhibits an 'untruth to materials', which is perhaps revealing. Curated by Keeley Haftner.


To create Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei worked with 1600 workers in the community of Jingdezhen to produce approximately 100 million seeds over a two-year period using a traditional imperial craft. Funded by The Unilever Series, these porcelain seeds are painted with slip in three to five strokes by highly skilled artisans, and then fired unglazed. Though this community’s local craft is traditionally employed to produce bowls or vases in a fixed language, Ai chose to use the form of the sunflower seed for its historic and symbolic implications. Founding father of the People's Republic of China Chairman Mao Zedong was often depicted with sunflowers around him, symbolizing Mao as the sun and the sunflowers as ordinary people loyal to the Communist Party. Post-production, when Sunflower Seeds was exhibited in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, viewers could initially walk on the seeds to experience their materiality, or lean down to feel their weight of the work in their hands. Due to the dust the porcelain produced, however, entering the installation was soon prohibited. The 52 seeds exhibited for What Is? are almost certainly authentic, but by the dubious means they were acquired, and without a certificate of authenticity, it is almost impossible to know for sure. By way of their laborious production, their exquisite materiality, their political import, their installation at the Tate Modern, and their subsequent acquisition, these small objects are rife with complex implications.

— Keeley Haftner, Exhibition Text for What Is?, Public Access Gallery, Chicago, 2016.

“Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious Love is an alphabetized romance novel; I took all of the words in an existing romance novel and sorted them alphabetically.  I wondered how the love story would exist without a narrative structure/plot line.  I used the alphabet—an arbitrary, non-hierarchical ordering convention—for its objective unemotional character, which places it at odds with the subjective emotional character of romance novels.  I wanted to see if there was a particular lexicon of words used for romance writing that would be made available though alphabetization.  I was curious to see how many times certain words would appear, and if those words would be the expected ones for a love story.  I wondered if I put a cover like this on it—essentially announcing to readers before they open the book that it is a romance novel—does it then become possible to read an alphabetical list of words as a romance story?“

This book is part of a series of artist novels based on pulp fiction genres, including romances, science fiction, and westerns.  The series was conceived and edited by Sally Alatalo, founder of the artist book publishing company Sara Ranchouse Publishing.

On November 13th, 2014 The Islamic State (ISIS) proposed a new currency on Twitter claiming the return of the gold standard as a monetary system. By this proposal, ISIS claims to end, as they say, “America's capitalist financial system of enslavery”. Drawings of the proposal and photos of one of the coins were released in the media (which media?)- by ISIS. Based on this coin, the five Dinar, a pair of gold dies was produced. “In God We Trust” highlights the ways religious fundamentalism and global capitalism are entangled and what kind of antagonisms are at stake. How the ‘here and elsewhere’ are perceived? If the images produced by ISIS were being constantly scrutinized by media to question its factuality and reliability, this work proposes a shift of focus to question what images are. ‘At the moment an image begins to circulate in the media and acquires the symbolic value of a representation of the political sublime, it can be subjected to art criticism along with every other image’ (Boris Groys). Therefore, what are the possibilities towards a practice of the critique of representation both in contemporary media and in art institutions? 

“Campbell’s most recent body of work is comprised of stretched linen canvas wrapped in simulated packing materials. Working exclusively with acrylic paint, she creates bubble wrap, cardboard, packing tape, and plastic sheeting which she then applies to a stretched support. The work is mimetic—a direct copy of a real thing—but also a representation of painting, that is, a painting of a painting. As writer Nancy Tousley observes in her recent feature in Canadian Art, Campbell’s work “turns on improbable dualities.” By the artists’ own admission, “the finished works are at once complete and incomplete, abstract and real, referential and self-referential.”1 The replicated materials are so convincing and the premise so conceptually plausible that her paintings have been dismissed as merely ‘the real thing.’ This productive confusion is the source of material interest and conceptual intrigue. Here, illusion and allusion operate in equal measure to point to possibilities outside of strictly formal and material concerns.

—Troy Gronsdahl, At the Threshold of Appearances, 2016. Exhibition Text for Mono/Chromatic, College Art Galleries, University of Saskatchewan, 2016.

1. Tousley, Nancy. “Is What You See Really What You See? Tammi Campbell’s Dialogue with Modernism.” Canadian Art, Spring 2014: pp. 96-102.