'The Art of Steven Campbell' at Marlborough Fine Art, London

Exhibition:  The Art of Steven Campbell

Gallery: Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BY

Dates: 13 September - 21 October 2017

Website (for images): www.marlboroughlondon.com 

Review by William Davie

“Cezanne was God to Steven” explained Steven Campbell’s widow, Carol, to a group of onlookers, while pointing at Untitled III from the 'Fantômas' Series (2007). The setting for the painting is taken from a photograph of the Cezanne studio taken while on a vacation. However, seemingly at odds with the narrative, a tube of Gaviscon on the bottom right of the work is what draws the eye. Photography wasn’t allowed in the museum so as a substitute Carol managed to sneak a photograph of a Gaviscon tube that Campbell had quickly placed on a chair while nobody was looking. It’s a unique homage; nostalgic and steeped in unbounding love. Yet, it very quickly turned to melancholic hindsight. Campbell, continued Carol, had by this point carried Gaviscon with him religiously for suspected indigestion and died of a ruptured appendix soon after completing the work.

Now, 10 years after his untimely death, the late Scottish painter is the subject of a touching retrospective in: The Art of Steven Campbell, at Marlborough Gallery, London.

Campbell’s ingenuity and deftness with a paintbrush can make you forget where you are, as is the case with Untitled III from the 'Fantômas' Series. The work is zealously tempered with staccato brush marks layered on top of one another casting the interior of Cezanne’s studio in bright yellows, reds and oranges. A bearded figure with his head bent back violently stares towards the top of a bookcase on the right of the painting. Campbell’s love of reading is evident in almost all of his works, but it is the insignia scrawled upon the top of the book case, according to Carol, that makes this work stand out. TRAVEL – LOGUES. The notion of being an author; being physically tied to a particular time but having the power to transpose an audience to any conceivable time or place is what shaped Campbell’s career. It cannot be forgotten though, that we view this work with the knowledge that Campbell died soon afterwards and that this event has re-written its interpretation, that had he not, would be very different.

His earlier works, in comparison, could be seen as being more youthfully arrogant with their inclusion of referential material. In Two Men gesturing in the Landscape each with the Chin of Joan Sutherland (1987), Campbell renders two dandy men gesticulating in a wooded area with the prominent chin of renowned soprano Joan Sutherland. Its sardonic charm could quickly be replaced by a defensive dismissal of being elitist. It is this precise esoteric symbolism that lacks any direct answer regarding meaning or narrative which, depending on the viewer, can be a liberating vehicle for debate or debilitating teasing. It heartedly captures the spirit of Campbell’s early works that propelled him to success.

In this work, there’s also a very readable and inviting air of PG Woodhouse which Campbell was reading obsessively at the time. Campbell’s ability to visualize Woodhouse’s knack for writing witty, controlled buffoonery, is executed in a magnetic manner. His brushwork is airy and mostly blended with areas, such as the woodland and the protagonist’s jackets and trousers denser with a slight raised surface. Here the colour palette of browns, greens and reds, are highlighted with inflections of yellows and oranges which intensify the denseness of these areas; the wooded area so much so that its almost palpable. In contrast, the area of mountainous Scottish landscape in the background, rendered in flat, pastel hues sees Campbell throwing his audience a curve-ball that leaves us again, insatiable wanting answers to its meaning but, just as importantly to see more of his work.

At this time, Campbell had been attracting considerable success and was living in New York. But, as Campbell’s work fell out of favour and he retreated from the lime-light and back to Glasgow, his work grew darker in subject and referential matter but, nonetheless, produced some of his most underrated and arresting works.

Alice in Ruins (1992) is a prime example. In it, Campbell creates a nightmarish scene based upon Alice in Wonderland. Alice, who is sat upright in a bed in the middle of the work with a low hanging light illuminating her like a film noir scene, is painted with scrappy impasto roughness. On either side, figures lurk in shadows and secondary narratives with the haunting presence of those found in Otto Dix’s work. These areas, the majority of the composition, are flatly rendered in dense browns and dark greens. Campbell’s inclusion of religious iconography - crosses; a partriarchal cross towering across the top right corner of the image and a painting of the crucifixion, hanging above her bed as well as naked bodies, in the throes of ecstasy or suffering, communicate a sense of suffering on Campbell’s behalf. To what extent, will never fully be revealed. This in part casts Campbell, at this time, in a stoic light. This is further exemplified by an orange cat, with piercing eyes and a wicked grin, looming over a goldfish bowl at the foot of the bed.

What this work conveys is Campbell’s humanity; his passion to continue and stay true to himself even if that meant being a martyr for his work – a hyperbolic accusation-cum-compliment that, the longer spent in with the works on show, seems fitting.

William Davie is a writer and curator based in London. He writes art reviews for Aesthetica Magazine, Ambit and This Is Tomorrow.