When Steven Campbell reached a crisis in his working life, he took on his idols in a series of collages. The results show him to be a true original, writes Duncan Macmillan
Steven Campbell: Love, Tramway, Glasgow *****
Alexander Moffat OBE RSA: A View of the Nation, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****
No serious artist who wants to be “contemporary” can possibly be a painter, or worse still a figurative painter, or that at least sometimes seems to be the common wisdom. Nearly 40 years ago, Steven Campbell made a dramatic appearance on the art scene with paintings that emphatically disproved that prejudice: all that was needed was brains – brains, courage, imagination and skill. Most unfashionably, he also made clear it needed a profound knowledge and understanding of the great art of the past; courage was needed, not just to challenge prejudice, but also to uphold a dialogue with the figurative tradition.
Campbell had all these things in abundance and his dialogue with the past, though a constant in his work, was focused particularly closely in a series of collages that he made in the late eighties. Twelve of these are brought together in Love at Tramway, nine that were exhibited 25 years ago, but not since, and three that have not been shown before. For those who are not familiar with Campbell’s work, or who are tempted to think of it as just a kind of amateur dramatics in paint, this show should persuade them what an original and profoundly serious artist he was.
The collages were the product of a crisis in his working life. To resolve it he quite deliberately took himself back to basics, remaking his art from the ground up in dialogue with his great predecessors. Turner did something similar, taking on the masters, at once to learn from them and to demonstrate his independence of them. The complexity of these collages and the sheer effort involved in making them are a measure of Campbell’s determination to meet the challenge he had set himself. Throughout, Matisse’s paper-cuts, the paradigm of collage, were inevitably part of his inspiration. The Artist’s Chair, for instance, is an emblematic self-portrait. His slightly wonky basket chair is empty. Beside it, a bottle gives off a cloud of smoke like a genie’s lamp. A painting from his CCA show, On Form and Fiction, floats in the empty space as though conjured in the smoke. The chair itself sits on a ground of collaged leaves and fruit echoing Matisse. There is Matisse foliage elsewhere too, in Two Cousins with the Same Mother who Left them Alone when they were Seventeen, for instance, but in Thoughts of a Vegetarian, he uses paper collage in a way that Matisse would never have done. It describes with breathtaking economy the light and shadow on a green apple. Then Campbell goes off on his own. In The Artist’s Chair, the chair and the cloud of smoke are painstakingly made, not with paper, but with coloured string.
In Goat Skull in Italy he takes on Picasso for whom a goat’s skull was a favourite motif. In the same picture, however, he also takes on de Chirico in the luminous white space and the simplified light on the neoclassical building, all collaged in paper. Mondrian and Munch have cameo roles in Penelope Waiting for Dad’s Return. In Study for Frottage of the Void, Campbell pastes a sheet of cane-effect paper onto the picture. “Frottage” is a homage to Max Ernst. In Max Ernst Showing a Young Girl the Head of his Father in the SNPG, Ernst created a similar a cane effect using this technique. (The similarity between Ernst’s title and Campbell’s titles is indicative of how much Surrealism inspired him.) But Braque’s Still Life with Chair Caning is an icon of cubism and indeed represents the invention of collage. So this detail is a homage to the history of collage itself.
Braque’s picture is also edged with rope and this might have inspired the collaged string Campbell uses, not only in The Artist’s Chair, but in almost all these works. Sometimes he draws simple lines with string, but he also works complex passages with it, coloured, cut to length, then glued. In Birth of Eurithia with Drowned Family, the seated couple are portrayed in shifting patterns of blue, all described in carefully cut and tinted string. It is typical of Campbell’s fertile invention that wavy drawing in paper collage continues this watery effect as though the whole upper part of the picture is submerged. In Penelope at Home Waiting for Dad’s Return, a little boy is reflected in a mirror behind him. Both images are made of string, but with such skill that the difference in intensity between the thing seen and its reflection is clearly apparent. Even more complex is the ghostly image of a woman in a waterfall in The Family of the Accidental Angel, again described with string. Working this way was intense and painful. Campbell told me at the time how the string made his fingers bleed. Like the prince in Sleeping Beauty fighting through thorns to reach the enchanted castle, he had purposefully set out to fight through thickets of self-imposed difficulty to get to his own open space.
And he succeeds. The resolution he achieves in these complex images is remarkable. They have a moral vision too. In the title picture, for instance, Venus and Cupid grow out of a butterfly’s wing, but the hunter with his gun, a constant character in Campbell’s work, is lurking behind them. In Dream of the Hunter’s Muse, he is the protagonist, but he is distracted from the deer he has just shot by a naked girl with an embroidered posy of flowers between her knees. Their one-sided exchange is an echo, not just of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, but also of his Venus with a Musician – Titian’s musician understandably distracted from his instrument by the naked Venus beside him. In Campbell’s work, however, innocence and experience often collide, or tragedy lurks in an apparently innocuous scene. In this picture, the girl is lying in a pool of blood and a kitten is playing with it. Catastrophe also looms in mundane domestic environments. In Penelope at Home, a naked woman falls off a bench as she changes a light bulb. The boy beneath her is trying to set the bench alight. This kind of existential tension drove Campbell’s work. It is not just picture-making. In its constant collisions and contradictions, his art is a metaphor for the instability of life itself. Too many trivial variations among our conformist modern day mediocrities are traded as originality. Steven Campbell proves the lie. He really was original.
When Campbell, with Adrian Wiszniewski, Ken Currie and the other artists associated with him were at Glasgow School of Art, Sandy Moffat was among those teaching. He in particular is credited with turning their attention to the unfashionable figurative tradition. Coincidentally he is currently also being celebrated in an exhibition of his portraits, both painted and drawn, at the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh, and this show also marks publication of a book on Moffat’s portraits by Bill Hare. The work in the show ranges back to the seventies and actually includes a drawing of Campbell and Wiszniewski together as students. There is also a very striking etching of Ken Currie. Other sitters include Sorely McLean, Robert Garioch and Muriel Spark. Moffat’s pastel portraits of women, including two here of Linda Myles, for instance, are particularly beautiful. Bill Hare’s book takes the story much further than the show, however. Filling in the history, it demonstrates how prolific Moffat has been over the last 50 years and the richness of the record he has made of leading figures in Scotland’s cultural scene. n
Steven Campbell until 25 March; Alexander Moffat, run ended. Facing the Nation - The Portraiture of Alexander Moffat by Bill Hare is published by Luath, £25