Emily Campbell's 'Imaginary Islands' depict depravity but illustrate apathy

Emily Campbell's Color Incinerator peice at ICA Baltimore
Emily Campbell's Color Incinerator peice at ICA Baltimore (Courtesy of ICA Baltimore)

Something is afoul in each of Emily Campbell's massive drawings. In her show "Imaginary Islands" with the ICA Baltimore at Space Camp (formerly the D Center), crowded compositions show people ritualistically fucking, hanging each other, and carving animal carcasses. Prostitutes hang by rope from trees, their entrails spilling out of them. Disembodied heads pop up at random, men in colonial garb walk around with their dicks out, people in Klan-like hoods observe and participate in these rituals. But none of these scenes look as gruesome as they sound, and actually they look pretty innocuous at first glance, in part because of the way that Campbell draws. Uniform lines in thick black pen collapse the drawings' spatial depth, and also show a total lack of expressiveness or emotion in these disturbing scenes.

The style and content in Campbell's work are at odds with each other, which seems to be the point. The drawings look like what might happen if Hieronymus Bosch had collaborated with the makers of "Bob's Burgers" to illustrate gigantic, weird coloring books. Because of the flatness, it's hard not to draw comparisons to cartoons. But what happens in these scenes hints at moments in youth when you start to realize that there're actually an incomprehensible number of terrible things going on in the world.


In the chaotic 'Arriving at the Shores of Unmarked Territory,' for example, a couple of people are digging into the carcass of some kind of four-legged animal, while several human heads pop up in the foreground. On the left, what initially appear to be tree limbs are actually partially amputated legs of a nude female-bodied person doing a handstand, legs spread. Somewhere else, another person gropes someone whose head is covered. Three people hang from nooses in the background and it's unclear whether it's suicide or execution. Unsure where to stop, we keep jumping around from different scenes in each drawing and try to keep up.

Other drawings, such as 'Bloodletting,' have clearer focal points. Here, in the center, a bull lies on the table, and his blood pours into an urn. Nearby, someone hangs upside-down, tied up by their feet. Another person is impaled by some kind of tree in the foreground, but everyone else in this drawing appears not to notice. Some are just standing around, eyes down or closed; others are preoccupied by sex. Everyone in Campbell's drawings looks so similar; their features are indistinct from one another. In this world, everyone's the same, so whatever happens to them doesn't matter much to anyone around.

In 'Strange Fruit'—surely a reference to the song made popular by Billie Holiday about lynching—two people, whose bodies are completely wrapped in fabric, hang from the same tree. Some observers appear to be turned on by this, such as the man wearing a colonial-looking outfit with his boner popping out, but the others, who are either naked or in some type of uniform, look on passively, or they just ignore it all. Moments of apathy like this are more grotesque than the centerpiece horror which focuses on ritual.

The huge level of emotional remove, both in the subjects' expressions and in the artist's static style, is the most disconcerting aspect of this work. Though the rampant killings of black people by police and racists who aren't police have spawned worldwide protests in solidarity, there are still so many people who turn a blind eye, who pretend that it's not happening because it doesn't affect their lives directly—until, say, a CVS near them burns down. Apathy to killings and war and brutality still puts you on the wrong side of all of that horrible shit, and that seems to be the crisis of Campbell's work here—with so much of it around us all the time, does any of it even shock us anymore?

"Imaginary Islands" ran through July 26