STEVEN CAMPBELL FEATURE
ORGIESTRATOR OF THE BIZARRE
nyone who has ever attempted something creative with serious intent must be familiar with the experience. You pull something off — you are pleased with the result. You try a similar thing a few more times and Bingo, everyone’s a winner! Suddenly however, it can start to go wrong; whatever you try, the bull’s-eye (initially achieved with apparently so little effort) becomes persistently more elusive.
I felt I was reliving the irritating sensations such a circumstance induces throughout the exhibition of Steven Campbell’s recent paintings at the Talbot Rice Art Gallery. It isn’t that Campbell’s fecund imagination has failed him; it hasn’t. Campbell is still probably Britain’s most competent orchestrator of the bizarre narrative. It is just that his recent work lacks the originality and wacky conviction which, during the 805, made him such an interesting and entertaining artist.
The main reason for. this is that Campbell has, over the past few years, begun to take himself too seriously and, in doing so, has dispensed with the intriguing humour which was previously the most valuable quality in his work. Generously, though unwisely, Campbell has provided short commentaries alongside the many large pictures (some little short of epic in scale). These are meant to enlighten the spectator but all they manage to convey is the confusion which presently reigns in the artist’s
in m In the Faulty, 1991
Palntlng In Detence of Migrants, (detail) 1993
Andrew Gibbon Williams is impressed by the unique vision of Steven Campbell but is
concerned that he has begun to take himself too seriously.
recent pictures look washed out and turgid as if the artist has concluded that those who decide to tackle serious themes must restrict themselves to sombre colours. Textures are frequently thin and, in general, the pictures give the impression that Campbell now regards paint as a necessary evil.
In only one of the large canvases on show do I detect the Steven Campbell many people came to know and love. It is called ‘Painting in Defence of Migrants’ and it forms a kind of commentary on man’s relationship to nature. Distressed and incompetent mankind staggers through some spooky glen while in the background huntsmen are busy desecrating the environment. Yet a variety of birds come to the aid of their fellow creatures. The message is optimistic; and the clever way in which Campbell has organised the composition rivets the attention. Meaning is explicit.
Those attracted to this exhibition by its unusual title, Pinocchio ’s Present, might be disappointed by the relatively few pictures which are based on the Pinocchio theme. Campbell is quoted as saying in the book which has been published to coincide with this exhibition that the Pinocchio story interests him because it is about telling the truth and telling lies; a laudable enough reason, but one which in the light of the evidence on show seems not to have reminded the artist of the wisdom of the maxim ‘Be true to thyself’. D
mind — a confusion lapsing at times into silliness. In ‘Two Years of my Time’ the artist’s alter-ego gazes at a waterfall while a series of Brylcreem tubs (annual presents from his mother-in-law) cascades down the grassy precipice against which the ﬁgure precariously lolls. A notion which would be forgiveable if it was a joke but the po-faced gloom which permeates the rest of the exhibition assures me otherwise.
In ‘Dead Man’s Cocktail Party’, ranks of anonymous-looking departed gents preside over a scrawny, sinking corpse; beneath it sunlit uplands suggest happier times. In the ‘Croatian Blouse’ blood drips from above a jumbled attic crowded with moribund children on to the white chemise of a female inhabitant of some scatty household. In ‘The Dream of Saint Sebastian’ a group of the bloodless adolescents who have become stock characters in Campbell’s personal mythology form a tableau around the punctured though apparently untroubled saint; tentacles drag down a sinking ship.
And the way in which these complex subjects are realised emphasises their dreary tone. Gone are the days when Campbell would mix up a bright primary palette and enjoy himself with acid pinks and jazzy greens. The era of burnt amber and dull olive is upon us. Many of the
It was Campbell’s originality and wacky conviction which, during the 805, made him
such an interesting and entertaining artist.
18 The List 20—26 August 1993