Catherine Wood on Bonnie Camplin

By Wood, Catherine | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Catherine Wood on Bonnie Camplin


Wood, Catherine, Artforum International


BONNIE CAMPLIN'S WORK STAGES A FRACTURED, contemporary take on the "conversation piece," the genre of intimately scaled, informal group portraits that were popular in Britain in the eighteenth century. Like the historical painters who portrayed families and cliques in naturalistic but subtly idealized ways, engaging in such common activities as attending a hunt or a musical party, Camplin makes use of art's double-edged capacity to fictionalize a personal milieu and simultaneously construct that milieu as a situation of meaningful communality. A close circle of relatives, friends, and fellow artists feature as subjects and collaborators in her works. Her London living space doubles as her studio, and she utilizes low-budget, demotic, readily available means and media--cut-up magazines, home video-editing effects, costumes made from secondhand clothes, props adapted from found objects--in an ongoing, improvisational process that is without clear beginning or end.

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Although there is no discernible boundary to her art, Camplin's practice does have a central thread weaving through it, articulated most clearly by meticulous photo-based pencil drawings depicting moments from her own life. Some of these works (which have been the focus of solo shows at London's Cabinet Gallery, one in 2004 and the other earlier this year) show family scenes--Camplin posing with her dad and sister at a seaside amusement park, for instance, all of them attired in mock-Victorian fancy dress. Others are self-portraits of the artist as a young woman, costumed in self-styled nightclub looks. By undertaking the time-consuming endeavor of transforming casual photos into hand-drawn pictures, the artist meditates on her history while speaking broadly to issues of the construction and display of the self. It's a consideration of self-representation that Camplin has opened into a wider conversation--one that negotiates between the ubiquity of mainstream imagery and the specificities of shared, private language--in her many collaborations with a group of peers including Mark Leckey, Lucy McKenzie, Enrico David, and Paulina Olowska.

From 2002 until 2004, Camplin was a member of Leckey's musical-performance collective donAteller (described in seductively pop terms in one early flier as a "luxury line in performance inspired by the speed, thrill, glamour of contemporary life"). She appeared with the group as the feminine yet androgynous counterpart of cosinger Ed LaLiq, both of them mannequin-like in makeup and hot pants. Camplin also coproduced and costarred in the video montage LonD on Atelier, 2002, in which she and LaLiq inhabit a baroque, self-destructing vision of London--the city as a site for decadent, performative display.

DonAteller's theatricalization of mass media's feminized image-realm, as well as Camplin's preoccupation with the self-portrait and with social ritual, has segued fascinatingly into a series of recent collaborations with Olowska. These stem from what the artists have described as their shared political interest not only in feminism but in the adjectival quality of "femininity"; that is to say, in negotiating the problem of essentialist readings of gender by treating the "feminine" not as an autonomous quality but as a decorative addition--one with unique aesthetic capacities that they, as women, can exploit. This attitude is evident in a number of works they have produced together this year: in the sweet nostalgia for modernist ballet of A like Akarova, a collaged animation that pays homage to the works of the titular dancer-choreographer; and in Spectators Only: A Shadow Play, in which they perform simple actions--drinking wine, conversing, walking together--behind a screen showing atmospheric film clips that provide landscaped settings for their figures, visible only in silhouette. Camplin and Olowska envision their joint projects as a kind of open dialogue. …

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