Post written by Claire Paterson, recipient of the Steven Campbell New York Scholarship
In recognition of the fact that the Steven Campbell New York Scholarship was made possible by of the creative legacy of the artist himself, I’d like to talk about some of my favourite paintings of his over the next couple of weeks.
Steven Campbell’s work is complex and multifaceted, extensively referencing the history of art and philosophy in order to create his own distinctive narratives and mythology. Literature too served as an inspiration for Campbell, and though he would weave elements from various literary genres into his work, he was particularly drawn to the greats of the Gothic genre.
This nod to Gothic literature is apparent in one of my favourite Campbell paintings, Spider on the Window, Monster in the Land (above), a piece inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story – a tale which, according to Campbell himself, ‘took its inspiration from a painting’ (source: p.83, The Paintings of Steven Campbell: The Story so Far, by Duncan MacMillan).
In Poe’s story, the protagonist looks through a window and sees a monster on the hill in the distance. Terrified, he looks again, realising that the monster is actually only a spider on the window.
This seems to be the case in Campbell’s painting too, but on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the artist has complicated matters by placing figures in the landscape, fleeing in fear – a pictorial trick that raises the question: is the insect located on the web in the window, or is it enormous and chasing people through the landscape beyond the glass?
As the writer Duncan MacMillan says in his book on Campbell, the artist is investigating ‘different levels of painted space, and depths of narrative reality’ (p.83), an idea that’s reinforced by the symbolism featured in the piece.
One of the characters in Campbell’s painting holds a book, perhaps intended to make us think of the stories we often use to interpret our own reality. There are also mirrors spaced throughout the composition: alluding to the different artists throughout history who’ve used mirrors as pictorial devices intended to peel back and expose the illusions contained in the picture plane itself.
In Spider on the Window, there are two odd figures reflected in what appears to be a large mirror on the left of the central group. This device is reminiscent of the unconventional composition found within the painting Las Meninas (below), by the 17th century artist Velazquez, in which a mirror is used to explore the spatial relationship between the sitters and the artist himself.
If we go by the position of the reflected figures in Spider on the Window, however, we see that they should be visibly situated in the very centre of the composition with their backs to us, standing between the seated figures and the mirror itself. Perhaps they could be ghosts or reverse-vampires in this scenario: reflected in the mirror, but invisible in the room itself. But this is only the case if we accept that the object is actually a mirror, and not in fact a further painting within the painting – an idea that would be supported by the shadow that falls across the object’s surface.
In the top left hand corner, we see another mirror – or possibly another painting – reflecting (or depicting) an insect scuttling across a landscape, making us even more aware that everything in this scene is illusion. This unsettling sense of artifice is further amplified by the inclusion of the strange, dislocated nudes, two of whom hold up hand mirrors that reflect nothing. Again, Campbell disorients with ambiguity, calling into question the painted reality he presents to us.
To quote Campbell himself here: ‘The flatness of the window is like the flatness of the canvas and the flatness of the mirrors. I painted the chairs and the women in the foreground flat to play with this idea of distance and flatness and what a canvas is.’
This painting is a wonderful example of the intricate games Campbell liked to play with perception – all the while exploring the language & sign systems we use to construct our understanding of the world around us.
Next week, I’ll be looking at the way in which Campbell used the character of Pinocchio to explore, in his own words, ‘what was the truth and what was lies in painting… a kind of play on what is honest art and what is untrue art.’
Sources used in this blog post: The Paintings of Steven Campbell: The Story So Far by Duncan MacMillan. If you’re wanting to find out more about the work of Steven Campbell, I’d highly recommend getting this Duncan MacMillan book, which looks at Campbell’s work in a great deal of depth. The book is available to purchase on Amazon.
In previous blog posts, I’ve also referenced the book ‘Steven Campbell: Wretched Stars, Insatiable Heaven’, by Kathy Chambers and Neil Mulholland (also available to order on Amazon)