I knew in 2004, when I first started university that I wanted to create figurative paintings that were of an imaginative style. I’d studied art all through my education, buying numerous books on the Old Greats. It wasn’t until my foundation course tutor, Mick Maslen, introduced me to the artwork of a group of Scottish figurative painters that I really knew the type of artwork I wanted to create. One of those artists was Steven Campbell.
My tutor handed me the book, ‘The Paintings of Steven Campbell, The Story so Far.’ The paintings inside were totally fresh and new to me. They drew my curiosity as they were full of story, wonder and puzzles. I had always read art books but hadn’t really sat down and read a proper book since school. As I discovered Campbell’s love of the books of P.G Wodehouse I thought by reading them I would find more clues to his paintings. I was planning a trip to Edinburgh to drop a painting off at a gallery and thought this would be a great opportunity for a read so I bought ‘Carry On Jeeves’ by Wodehouse. The book was full of quirky characters and hilarious stories. I thought these characters could be, on some level, the figures in Campbell’s paintings. This was great, these books were almost a dialogue for the artworks and I began reading more and more of them.
I’ve decided to talk about a painting that was probably the first image of Campbell’s work that I saw. It’s the image used for the front of a book my tutor handed to me. The painting is called ‘Painting in Defence of Migrants.’ Although painted in 1993 the image and subject are actually very appropriate given current events in the world today. The work shows a group of migrants exhausted from their travels, sitting high up next to a waterfall. They are spot-lit; the sky is dark with heavy clouds hanging over them with subtle silhouettes of men with guns drifting among them. Hunters or Soldiers? Perhaps in hot pursuit of the weary travellers?
The composition of the painting is circular, your eye moves around the painting, led by limbs, faces, and nature. Circular? Could this be on purpose to show that the travellers have been walking in circles themselves? Two trees sit either side of the painting, sheltering the group. The tall trunks lean towards each other forcing your eye down a valley filled with birds and fish; they too are migrants. The fish swim against the flowing waters of the river. They are most likely as tired as the people, fighting the current. A man with blonde hair is slightly more spot-lit than the others in the group, his hands placed together as though he is praying. The fish and water behind him are glowing. Has his prayer been answered as nature provides the fish that could be the food the travellers need to gain the energy to carry on? He is also the only one standing and is taking a step forward, a hopeful man not willing to give up. The birds swoop and glide over the landscape, littering the sky like the Hitchcock film, but these birds are not menacing. I feel they represent hope, a rescue party!
Since first seeing that book I’ve managed to collect a lot of exhibition catalogues of various Steven Campbell exhibitions from various online sellers. My favourite though, is one from a 1984 exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery. They say don’t judge a book by its cover but this one had a very special cover. The cover is cream covered with black brush marks crisscrossing and dotting out a horizontal figure in front of brickwork with the name STEVEN CAMPBELL spelled out boldly. As I picked it up I thought the rear of the cover was ripped, only to discover this was purposely done to reveal a pale blue sky with those same expressive black brush marks shaping out a mountain scene.
The great thing I’ve found in Campbell’s work is that every time I return to look at his paintings I’ll find something new. I feel like a traveller myself when I study them as I’m sure he was when he painted them. One of the things that really draws me to the work is how much you can tell he enjoyed painting these artworks; it’s his playground with endless possibilities.
With thanks to:
Artist and Damien Hirst Painting Assistant
Member of Steven Campbell Appreciation Group: