Published on August 21st, 2012 | by Angela Son


Interview with Artist Kristine Campbell

The dress has long been a symbol representative of the female form. Why is it that a simple piece of clothing has been charged with such strong gender identification? After all, men oh-so graciously shared the privilege of wearing a nice pair of pants with women, but, alas, women never returned the favor; thus men are doomed to never wear dresses (at least, the majority of them).  In spite of this, however, fashion designers have been repeatedly inspired to work with this recognizable image: the dress.

Michigan-based artist Kristine Campbell continues to use the tradition of the image of the dress as representative the female form while transcending its gender-specific connotations. In her exhibition, Dress Series, Campbell investigates how the dress is perceived without the distraction of an individual figure or facial features, consequently challenging the manifestation of a dress as a woman’s property.

Dress Series is composed of 16 wood panels.  Each panel is square and sized differently, ranging from 10-by-10 to 30-by-30 inches.  At the center of each panel is a genderless figure in a dress with gloves and shoes, standing in front of a surrealistic, dreamy background.

Campbell likes to work in series with a common central image because it gives her room to fully study a particular theme or object. Some of her panels are paired together in order to investigate more specific themes about the dress;  for instance, the two panels in Birds are Not the Target play off of artist Jasper Johns’ famous paintings of the target, using the same image to instead represent women’s issues being targeted in the media.

Campbell took a few moments to talk with Art Animal about her inspiration for Dress Series and her plans for the future.

Art Animal: Your panels have such interesting titles, like “No Taxi on Spring,” “Birds Are Not The Target” and “Variations on a Gesture.” How do you go about naming your panels?
Kristine Campbell: As I work on a piece titles seem to suggest themselves.  I have never worked to “find” a title.  When I began to work with encaustic [hot wax painting] I went to the Whitney Museum and MOMA to view some Jasper Johns work in that medium. Early in my study of other artists’ work I was drawn to Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but when you work in the same medium it is much easier to feel a connection. Because targets were a big part of Johns’ early works I wanted to incorporate that image in some of the paintings. Also, the current news dealing with women’s issues brought those two ideas – gender and target – together for the Birds Are Not the Target series.

When my mother passed I inherited many boxes of gloves of all types and colors.  They began appearing in my work and I liked that idea of movement and gesture with the gloves, so Variations came out of that. When I lived in NYC I worked in a gallery on Spring Street. Still working with the gloves as side objects I explored the idea of different locations and kinds of movement like hailing a taxi, working with puppets, holding flowers, etc.  In some disjointed way these [globes] reminded me of my time on Spring Street.

AA: All of the titles aforementioned are presented in series of three. Why do you produce them in series?
KC: I don’t always work in threes. The Teacup series, for example, began with six but has grown to nine, and I am still working with that idea. The process of most of my work begins with pencil sketches or charcoal and then watercolor to lay out the central idea and design.  Next those ideas are developed further on the canvas or panel, or more recently utilizing the computer to aid in visualizing the final piece.  I generally work on two or more pieces at the same time. In this way pieces evolve with the same palette and general theme.  Series work with a common central image [and] allow for a full investigation of an idea or concept.

AA: What inspired you to create the Dress Series?  
KC: For the most partthe dress image worked as a placeholder for the concept of female, but not exclusively.  I wanted it to be less about gender and more about story but I realize that dress does have that strong female connection. I do like fashion and fiber art so it is a nice meld to be able to explore ideas of landscape and story and use the dress as a centerpiece or holding image.

AA: How long did it take to complete the Dress Series project?
KC: It continues. I made the first sketches more than three years ago, now. I did some early small paintings but have continued to work on those images for the past few years with some interruptions to do other work.

AA: You divide the panels into different color schemes and landscapes.  How do you get your ideas for the composition of the panels? 
KC: I’ve always liked the idea of having “frames” in one panel. In my early work, I usually had one side in a darker palette and one in a lighter. Now, the frames may have only slight color variations but I still like the idea of shaping a scene in two or more different ways.

AA: Some panels had a geometric shape of a target in various forms, sometimes overlapping with images, other times actually presented in the panel. The bull’s eye is always centered on where the genitals should be in the dress. What inspired that focal point?  KC: It is interesting that you say that.  What you have mentioned had not occurred to me but I like to hear other interpretations. Or perhaps it was a subconscious placement. I know the idea of targeting women certainly has come up but not the placement as any attributable construct.

AA: Your panels are undoubtedly filled with stories that are easily visualized from the various images such as wings and the blue sky, legs visible under a skirt, birds, newspapers, roses and different landscapes.  Do you usually have a story in mind for each panel?  
KC: I think of my works as stories, that’s true. What begins as static images, particularly that central image, often moves toward narrative as I paint or fit sections together.  I don’t have a story in mind when I begin.  I do love socks and have drawers filled with colorful, image-laden pairs, some of which have found their way into paintings.

AA: What tools do you use to add the images onto a wood panel?  Stencils, adhesives or computer graphics?
KC: The works in this series were constructed using mixed media and encaustic on wood panels.  I like the idea of a “floating” image. Because the beginning sketches were conceived from memories of old family photographs, the type of media was selected to produce a final image that would appear ethereal or floating.  I turned to encaustic to achieve that result.  I don’t use stencils but I have manipulated paintings in many ways. I have used a computer to better visualize the final image.  Once the image is finalized in my mind I begin to paint, print and layer with wax.

AA: I am fascinated with the idea of dress as a symbol to represent women itself, without the distraction of an individual figure or facial features. How do you explore the female identity through Dress Series
KC: This is one of my favorite questions that people ask. People seem interested in why there isn’t a figure, or more importantly, a face in some of the paintings.  You have answered it as I do.  The figure is not only a distraction but as soon as a face or figure is used it becomes someone, a stranger the viewer does not know.  This removes the viewer from seeing the work as something they can interpret or become a part of.  By leaving the form unexplained the viewer is persuaded to work out the ideas for themselves.  I don’t want to give the viewer any preconceived answers.

AA: Although the figures on the panel are in a dress, they do not seem particularly female.  The figures reminded me of two instances in the news recently: a preschool boy wanting to wear a dress to school and fashion designer Marc Jacobs showing up at the 2012 Met Gala in a sheer Comme des Garcons dress.  So here’s my long-winded question:  is your work an interpretation, commentary, or critique of the fashion world?
KC: This is good to hear.  I hope that fashion becomes more about personal choice and not gender-specific dictates.  I think of fashion as wearable art and runway shows as performance art – moveable fibers.  I really like this idea of the dress not defining one gender and was hoping to transcend that idea in this series.

AA: Your panels have dark color schemes overall, which I personally thought balances the femininity of the dress.  What is the role of the dark color scheme in the Dress Series?
KC: Maybe it is an ancestral bent, which has been suggested, but I love dark, gloom and rainy days.  My heritage is Scottish and I feel a little sad on very sunny days. My favorite paintings utilize a darker palette.  I will say that the dark paintings have a more difficult time finding an audience. I did a Sunflower series a few years back that was very popular but it felt outside my nature to paint them so it was a short-lived excursion.

AA: I believe your premise on the Dress Series is for the viewer to create their own perceptions about place and time through a single image.  How does the Dress Series challenge the viewer’s preconceptions and perceptions? 
KC: In the ways you have mentioned, I hope.  I like the idea of the paintings standing on their own with an individual story invented by each viewer and not just pertaining to a particular gender.

AA: Any final comments to Art Animal? 
KC: I have enjoyed hearing your interpretations of my work.  As an artist working in my studio I create a work never knowing if there will be a connection with anyone else.  When the work is exhibited it is the first time I have an opportunity to have a dialog with the viewer.

“Birds Are Not The Target #1 was selected by writer Christopher Barzak to appear as the cover for his book, Birds and Birthdays.  Campbell’s work has been exhibited in the United States, Great Britain and Australia.  Her works are currently on exhibit in Boston, Ludington, Michigan, and Asheville, North Carolina. To purchase or learn more about Campbell’s Dress Series and her other works, visit

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About the Author

Angela loves the many subtleties languages carry, appreciates being bilingual and strives to be fluent in Chinese and French. She is currently working on a short story in addition to writing for the Smashion Babble fashion blog and the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, where she studies English and Psychology. After graduation, she plans to work as a journalist and write about what she finds passionate. In her free time she loves to get buzzed on wine, play guitar and sing. She’s also an ardent advocate of vintage fashion items. Angela, herself an artist, is thrilled to discover local women artists with Art Animal.

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