Was Cy Twombly a Hottie? An Interview with Jessica Campbell author of Hot of Not: 20th-Century Male Artists

By: Jacqueline Hampshire

In 2016, artist Jessica Campbell added an essential literary work to the art historical canon. Through captivating text and visual analysis, Campbell fills one of the gaping holes in the history of art. For too long male artists of the 20th century have been overlooked in one particular (and important) area: their looks. We know they were geniuses, but were they hot?!

Jackie Hampshire: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my interview questions! I thoroughly enjoyed the book. What inspired you to create Hot or Not?

Jessica Campbell: One day I was watching a short documentary that featured Barnett Newman, and was completely shocked to see what he looked like. I had expected him to look like a youthful woodsman, chopping down enormous trees with which to make the stretcher bars for Voice of Fire, perhaps the most contentious painting in a Canadian museum. However, I found a pudgy old man in a bowtie, pompously extolling the virtues of his work. I realized that while I may be readily able to call to mind the face of Georgia O’Keeffe or Emily Carr, I usually cannot do so with their male counterparts.

JH: Have you been subjected to the male-dominated Art History survey course in the past? Did it add fuel to the fire?

JC: I took a class in undergrad that used Janson’s History of Art (an edition that included women, thankfully) but countered it with essays like Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Frankly, most of the blatant sexism that I have encountered in art has been in the comics world, where even last year, the largest (or second largest?) comics festival in the world gave out a lifetime achievement award that, of 30 nominees, included not a single woman. And, similar to Janson’s text, about 10 years ago in comics there was a touring exhibition and catalogue called The Masters of American Comics that was intended by its curator/editor to solidify a comics canon and included not a single woman artist. I remember watching a panel discussion with him where he said that there’s “never been a female Milt Caniff,” which was essentially the same as Janson saying that there’s never been a female Rembrandt or whatever. Yeah, OK, but there is a female Mary Cassatt, Artemisia Gentileschi, Frieda Kahlo, etc.

JH: I know you work with many mediums, why did you choose the graphic novel for this particular commentary?

JC: Part of it was the facility/logic of expressing the joke/critique in a book format, and part of it was the idea of reducing the work to black and white, somewhat crude drawings. I liked the idea of reducing these male geniuses to only their appearances and reducing their masterworks to crude reproductions.

JH: Was there any systematic approach to choosing your potential hotties?

JC: I wanted them to be of the twentieth century, largely because that meant they left behind portraits and photographic records. I wanted them to be all be dead, and I wanted not to be able to immediately call to mind their faces, like I can with Picasso or Pollock, for instance.

JH: In Hot or Not you have placed yourself in the narrative as the gallery tour guide. Do you often feature yourself in your graphic art?   

JC: Yes, I have a practice of making diaristic gag comics that, of course, feature myself. I’m also currently working on a science fiction graphic novel that features an alien space commander named Jessica Campbell who encounters an earthling named Jessica Campbell.  These characters perhaps deviate more fully from myself than my namesake in Hot or Not, though in general my renderings of myself have some aspect of caricature to them.

JH: I admittedly know very little about the comic world and the history of graphic novels however I hedge a bet that it has been largely male dominated as well.  What’s it like being a female comic book writer and illustrator?

JC: In most of the circles that I run in, it is very equal. I teach comics and the majority of my students are women, and many of my friends here in Chicago are women who make comics. The mainstream comics world is, I would say, a lot more gendered and where you’re more likely people who fit the Simpsons’ “comic book guy” stereotype. I used to encounter that a little bit when I would work at mainstream comic book conventions from Drawn & Quarterly (where I worked before moving to the US), but I don’t attend those any longer so I now rarely run in to people like that.

JH:  How has Hot or Not been received since it was released late last year?

JC: Well, I think! It was on the CBC’s best books of 2016 list. One guy on the Onion AV comments section said that “Mondrian wasn’t even hot” and then listed why, but otherwise people seem to like it.

JH: Do you have any plans for future graphic novels or shows in the Montreal-Toronto area?

JC: No. I came to both Montreal and Toronto for my book tour in the fall so I don’t have any upcoming events there. My great friends Tracy Hurren and Alison Naturale (who both work at Drawn & Quarterly) are involved in the local comedy scene and I’ve participated in a few of their comedic ventures, both performances and a newspaper they make called the Joketown Crier. It’s possible that I’ll next come back to do something with them, but I’m not sure when. The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is in May and I would be there if I was still living in the country.

Thank you Jessica!

I believe I speak for all Art History students when I say that no ARTH survey course should be without this text.  I can now accept my diploma knowing that I have explored all areas of inquiry and have not cheated 20th century male artists of the analysis they deserve.

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