File Note 123: Camilla Wills - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Lizzie Homersham



No Qualities Inhere Images References Biography Credits

No Qualities Inhere

‘Once the medium can no longer be delimited, then no qualities can be inherent to it. Its character, rather, depends on how the artist will proceed with it.’1

Art theorist and publisher Isabelle Graw explains that what painting appears to index is the labour process of its production and through it the artist’s person, giving the superficial impression of saturation with the artistic acts by which the author is defined. However, this is painting’s trick: ‘Subjectivity is here not that of the artist but a universal faculty.’2 The attribution of meaning and value typically accords with seeing in
the work things that jar or cohere with one’s life and view. 

I have been carrying around in my notebook a piece of work by Camilla Wills. A paper cocktail napkin with 3D/COM/PASSION printed at the centre of a square, within squares in metallic gold suggests hospitality and feeling together in a claustrophobic white space. Wills encourages thinking through painting via publishing and puts the privileged value of the author to the test. Since art can no longer be defined by the ‘essence of its medium,’3 what painting effects is a particular kind of surface tension, mediating between artists and spectators confronting the non-essence of their selves.

In her recent exhibition In light of, the surfaces Wills presented were slack. She followed the scale of the gallery une, une, une as a guide. Unstretched white canvases hung floor to ceiling, screen-printed red and black to surround the viewer in QCJTKP PAAM. This was the booking reference generated from Wills’s travel by train from London to Perpignan, France, to complete the process of producing her work on site. The letters were composed using the repeated image of the backs of Wills’s eyes; silkscreens were made from digital fundus photographs requested by the artist from her optician following an eye test. It is a strange thing, to be looking at painting and to see the artist’s eyes spelling out her passenger identity. We are told the booking reference is used, as part of an attempt, ‘to represent the journey as an aesthetic in itself.’4 We stand corrected if we take the code to infer reflection on artistic itinerancy, reading In light of as communication of the artist’s identity as essentially passenger-like. Retinal photography in painterly composition strikes a convincing pose as an index of the artist, as scientific capture of her vision, but these are the backs of the eyes. It’s a forward-facing, defensive move to show the viewer the part of the eye located closest to the brain. These are exposed retinas, they enable seeing, but the body’s boundaries normally keep them from view. In light of offers them up but as blocking devices. Our supposed desire to access the artist directly meets its match; the eyes here are anything but windows to the soul. Entry refused, they see me asking how the rapid eye movement (REM) that happens in dream-filled sleep compares with the rapid movement of a passenger’s eyes trying to keep up with landscape while moving through it at speed. The gaze out of a train window leaves no trace though it’s captured in memory. The experience is recorded in print.5 Watch the person sat across from you on a train as they look out of the window, you’ll see their eyes dart side to side. I remember doing this as a child and asking my mum: ‘do my eyes do that too?’

Looking in different directions is encouraged in Wills’s work. The way it faces in relation to our approach is how meaning gets co-produced. One glass panel of the door became part of a fourth wall onto which Wills mounted a 3D model of the exhibition space itself, presenting the viewer stood outside the gallery, looking in, with a floor plan of the room they were to enter. In light of put conceptions of up and down, inside and out, light and dark, through a series of reorientations, suggesting potentially infinite doubling, scaling up and down, rotating and splitting. Wills’s maquette consisted not only of making miniature and upturning but also of reimagining the gallery’s architecture as it would look if it stood beside itself, flipped along the vertical axis. It also visualised how the gallery would appear set within itself, as a space of containment for artwork that was now being transformed, offered up for the viewer to contain or to internalize, by means of their projective gaze. Likened by the artist to a miniature yin and yang, referencing Buddhism and flow, and paying small-scale homage to Hilma af Klint, the maquette’s black and white components simultaneously constituted doubled entities, quarters and halves, opposites and complements jostling and contesting each other.6
Poet Anne Boyer meditates on love’s objectification and loss as they come to be experienced in different lighting conditions:

The night contests the day, then the day contests the night. The clarity and ordinary pace of the day is suspicious to the heartbroken person in the night: what if what the day says about the longing at night is slander? … The day and night are ridiculous together: neither right, each loudly claiming to have a true desire and each untrustworthy in these claims.7

Like night and day according to Boyer, Wills asks how to justify her practice through a reckoning with pulls between extremes: for example, the desire to put everything into an exhibition, to fill it with all manner of expressions of thought and conversation and reading, or on the other hand absent herself and produce nothing at all. Tonight, the title of Wills’s solo show at Gaudel de Stampa, Paris, 2018, speaks of expectations to be fulfilled. Yet Tonight is very nearly an anagram of ‘nothing’, so the promise (the word) contests its own infrastructure. In Tonight, Wills presented four foamcore fireplaces, defunct containers of heat or social facades, bringing the exhibition closer to the end of a desiring spectrum that would see the artist staying in, cancelling on plans. The digital poster for Tonight told that the ‘PSYCHE IS LIKE CAMERA INSIDE FIRE’: these words were overlaid in blue on a photo taken from the perspective of the fire within. While artworks are most often discussed in terms of their optical effects, Wills has noticed how the light given out by her paintings, as well as sculptural, video, photographic and printed work, has been treated in her exhibitions as if it were a source of heat. ‘I was happy with the opening of Tonight, people gathered and socialised around the works (fireplaces) as if for heat. The gaze of looking at an artwork and looking into the fire appears quite similar.’8

Time and light were the basic elements of Wills’s Perpignan show, converging on canvases and 3D renderings of infinite surface alike. Time and light but also heat – an appearance of heat in red ink used to print the retina. A transfer of heat occurs in the transfer of energy that happens as Wills decides what to include and exclude. What is justified if showing your artwork to a public translates as passion, a sense of mission and acts of omission times two – as compassion and commission? 3D/COM/PASSION tells a serious joke about a passionate meeting with the viewer on paper. But choices that seem justified to the artist will not necessarily make them funny or pleasing in others’ eyes. When Wills commissioned Jacob Blandy to draw her portrait as a worm cut in two, he captured her in an unflattering light, ridiculous in her reckoning, and in her sense of being torn and split. 

To cut – to paint by editing – is one way of dealing with split subjectivity, of practising ‘standing in the groundless ground.’9 Groundlessness is the place from which In light of picked up, by taking stock of the journey, experiences of travel, work and rest at the scale the gallery gave. For the culmination of her residency, Wills has shipped the canvases from Perpignan to London, stretched them taut, separated out the code and used it to block the windows and doors of her Camden Arts Centre studio, as well as index the taped up CCTV camera. What the work gains as it becomes more recognisable as painting, the passenger code loses in coherence, questioning the association of return to a reputable institution with ideas of reaching a rightful place. QCJTKP PAAM is rendered abstract, displaying the uselessness of once functioning code. It tells us little about a person named Camilla Wills. We see traces of the directions she has travelled through this work, and as we come to face it, tending to its heat, we decide if it is just, and how.


1 Graw, Isabelle. “The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons.” Thinking through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas. Eds. Isabelle Graw, Daniel Birnbaum, Nikolaus Hirsch. Berlin: Sternberg Press 2012. 47–48. Print.

2 Ibid. 53.

3 Ibid.

4 “Camilla Wills In light of.” Une une une. Press release. 8 December 2018 – 18 January 2019, Perpignan, France.

5 Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. University of California Press, 2014. 232–233. Print.

6 De Zegher Catherine and Teicher, Hendel, eds. 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint

7 Boyer, Anne. “Erotology II: The Long Night.” A Handbook of Disappointed Fate. New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. 87–89.

8 Wills, Camilla. Email correspondence to Lizzie Homersham. 2018.

9 Ricco, John Paul. The Decision Between Us. University of Chicago Press. 2014. Quoted in Camilla Wills: Mourning times one hundred. 12 December 2017 – 12 January 2018. London: Montague.

Bordowitz, Gregg. “Tactics Inside and Out.” Artforum 43. 11 (September 2004). 212-215, 292.

Boyer, Anne. A Handbook of Disappointed Fate. New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Print.

Butt, Gavin. “Happenings in History, or, The Epistemology of the Memoir.” Oxford Art Journal 24.2 (2001): 115-126. Print.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. London and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992. Print.

Delany, Samuel R., The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing In the East Village. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Krauss, Rosalind, E. “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View.” Art Journal, 42. 4 (1982)

Lippard, Lucy “Jo Baer: In Defense of Painting”, Cologne: Walther Konig, 2013. Rosenberg, Jacob Bard. Walter Benjamin on Blushing: New translations of fragments on colour and some inflationary reading notes. Birkbeck College, University of London. 2017.

Storr, Robert. “Jack Whitten with Robert Storr.” The Brooklyn Rail. 4 Feb. 2007,


Camilla Wills is a British artist based in Brussels. Collaborative and solo presentations include une, une, une, Perpignan (2018); Montague, London (2018); Gaudel de Stampa, Paris (2018); Chapter NY, New York (2017); Kunsthal Aarhus, DK (2016). Her writing has recently been published by Girls Like Us, May Revue, and Immixtion press (Marseille).


Lizzie Homersham is a writer and editor. She met Camilla Wills through Book Works, London, in February 2015. They began to talk and correspond in New York in February 2017.

Published on the occasion of Camilla Wills’s residency at Camden Art Centre, September 2018 – January 2019.

Supported by Cranford Collection.