I returned to the Royal Scottish Academy’s Galleries many times to view the partial reconstruction of Steven Campbell’s 1990 work On Form and Fiction before it was taken down. I have no idea who now owns this piece, probably his family, but I repeat my previous suggestion that a permanent site should be found for it. Perhaps Summerhall, Edinburgh, would have space, and if that was to be considered, Glasgow worthies might be aroused to claim the artist’s piece for themselves.
The assemblage – I’m avoiding the term installation to prevent contamination – consists of a number of framed paintings around 109 cm square hung at intervals surrounded by sketches one of which is developed in the central work. Despite the variety of images, techniques, styles and ideas involved in all this, it is impossible to find any awkward arrangement or signs of a changed decision. Campbell’s compositional abilities are infallible and spontaneous. All the elements of Campbell’s genius are here. Yet his best work was still to come.
Campbell never relied on gigantic scale to make an impact, unlike so many modern artists. In the three important exhibitions in Scotland that followed On Form and Fiction, Pinocchio’s Present, 1993 and The Caravan Club, 2002, both at The Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh and the posthumous exhibition shared between Glasgow Print Studios and Glasgow school of Art, 2008, no painting is much bigger than Constable’s six footers. But they display the most incredible invention, which seems to flow organically. The human figure is ever-present combined in the most energetic positions, falling, dismembered, emerging three-dimensionally-modelled from flat backgrounds, dissolving, even mutating. Yet the painter never resorts to any stylisation or cubist clichés that so dates many paintings influenced by early modernism. Also, he avoids the sort of arbitrary distortion that spoils some of Stanley Spencer’s work. There is a fabulous wealth of imagery and this, plus bright colour, flat pattern making, representational painting and at times even expressionist brushwork, is all orchestrated to read perfectly. Campbell can make absolutely anything work.
The jazz and classical saxophonist Branford Marsalis was recently on Radio 3’s weekday, morning feature, where a distinguished guest discusses musical experiences and chooses music. Marsalis talked of his amazement on first hearing Richard Strauss’s revolutionary opera Salome. However, when it came to choosing some music to be played, he selected a passage from Der Rosenkavalier. The interviewer was clearly perplexed. The saxophonist explained that in the later opera, Strauss demonstrated that he knew all classical music. In the same way we are aware that Campbell understands and uses, the whole history of Western visual art and thus avoids the path of linear innovation, each step attempting to trump the previous one, that arrives at unmade beds, a light being switched on and off, canned artists’ excrement and so on.
Faced with work like Campbell’s, the puzzled layperson is apt to ask, ‘What does it mean?’ A literary key is sought. But paintings don’t work that way. Some paintings may have a story behind them but they have to outlast their iconography otherwise we could make nothing of work from different cultures and different belief systems. Campbell in an early exhibition at the Fruit Market Gallery, Edinburgh, drew inspiration from the stories of P. G. Wodehouse. Knowledge of this would not help in the appreciation of his work. He has also drawn on Hichcock films. Yet I am a confirmed enthusiast for Campbell’s painting without ever having seen a single one of the director’s works.
In the catalogue for The Caravan Club there is a reproduction of a painting in acrylic on paper, measuring 65x74.5 inches, entitled A bag of dust mite balls goes by perspectively. It is a favourite of mine. In the upper part of the composition a number of figures are behind windows. They could be of a bus or a train. Three arms appear to reach out holding leather cash type bags with metal clasps arranged in strict perspective. Yet they are not attached to the figures, only to the bags by their gripping hands. Columns of dust spout from the clasps, ending in human heads. The work is very painterly, in parts in a watercolourly way.
I know little of how Campbell worked, except that he generally painted his oils on unstretched canvas, stretching the pieces when finished. It is unlikely that he thought up zany ideas and then painted them up like Magritte or Dali would. I feel it belittles this painting to call it surrealist. Magical is more appropriate. One feels that in some mysterious way Campbell’s brush and his imagination worked together to produce immaculate conceptions like this one.