Clement Greenberg casts a long shadow across the flatness of the Prairies. The Prairies would be colonized by Modernism, colonizing and canonizing itself through the universities in Edmonton and Saskatoon, through places like Art Placement and Emma Lake, the latter attracting figures like Anthony Caro, Barnett Newman, and Donald Judd. If you look closely, there are still rusting steel sculptures dotting the sides of streets and in backyards throughout Edmonton and Saskatoon. For a brief while, I even had one in my own backyard, taken from a roommate’s undergraduate portfolio.
To get beyond modernism, to address and paint post-painterly paintings and reconcile with her Modernist roots, Tammi Campbell painted in direct relationship to modernist art history. Laura St. Pierre met Tammi at a residency at Emma Lake, and Laura recommended I check out Tammi’s work the next time I was in Saskatoon.
Doubling as a studio and white cube space, the Make Works Project is a non-descript storefront in the Riversdale district. Holding critical talks and exhibitions as well as functioning as her studio, Make Works is a quintessential prairie realization. Self-run initiatives and pop-up galleries happen everywhere, but with no critical mass; spaces like Make Works occur out of a basic necessity and pioneering ingenuity.
On the studio side of the building, Tammi took out roll after roll of paintings and carefully unfurled each one. I don’t remember if she wore conservation gloves, but I would not be surprised if she had. There was a meticulous quality about the studio, down to the perfectly pristine and fluffy hand towels in the washroom. For a painting studio, this was the cleanest I had ever seen.
Of the paintings, all the signatures of abstraction were there: the rigor of composition and balance, the purity of the stroke. But what made these special was their transparent becoming. In place of perfect tombs of Kantian formations, there was instead the highly visible, if not vulnerable markings of paint un-painted. A negative print of a Frank Stella repetition in black and white stretched across the room. The history of Modernism in Saskatoon left a lot of baggage, and this excess was being channelled into an unravelling.
A piece of masking tape curled up from the paper. She was already two steps in before I caught up to what she was talking about. Paint is a form, being formed and forming. Paint was undone, from abstraction on paper into material engagements. This was a complete deconstruction of paint as we knew it.
As a look back into art history, this self-reflective process occurs in the studio environment before it reaches the gallery walls. We need a place to make works, and an undertaking of experiments leads us here to a place like this one.