The following statement is verbatim from Duncan Macmillan’s book:
Steven Campbell, The Story so Far.
When asked by the author the story behind the image Steven’s reply was:
‘It is about trying to have sex in a house full of children. It is nearly impossible. You become like them.’
It was a statement he was to repeat at the opening of his exhibition when being interviewed by George Melly for the TV news broadcast that evening. Not exactly what our parents were expecting when we told them to tune in.
This painting is one of a small group completed before Steven’s death in the August of 2007.
He always worked loosely around a theme when preparing an exhibition i.e. Pinocchio, the wars in Eastern Europe/Plight of migrants going back to his bumbling Woodhouse figures and his protagonist Hunt.
In this final series he had begun to paint around a theme of ‘Extreme Sports’ but not of the usually accepted kind such as base jumping, caving, canyoning etc. Instead his idea was to take everyday normal and safe activities but put a different and dangerous twist on them, such as in the July Calendar where we see two little girls happily potting plants in their greenhouse while a male figure on the extreme right practises his archery skills.
Given that archery would not normally be categorised as an extreme sport it is elevated to such by placing his target at the end of the greenhouse, whereby he now has to ensure the safety of the two girls while aiming at the bullseye.
We also see the Pinocchio figure being tossed high, while the trees, from which all such puppets originate, are felled also destroying the puppet habitats high in the branches.
Steven never got to conclude this series but continued to work on them even up to the day before he was hospitalised.
As ever in his life Art was his mistress and often a cruel taskmaster but he would never have had it any other way.
The image here is taken from a tragic real life event that Steven happened unwittingly to be party to and which left a scarring memory.
It was early on a sunny Sunday morning in New York when after a debate around him going to his studio, with me saying he should take a Sunday off as family time / day of rest but ending with us compromising on him going for a few hours and planning to be back by early afternoon.
Steven set off for his studio in Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant). He had one change to make on his subway journey from our loft in lower Manhattan to the Brooklyn borough.
As he got off his first train and was descending down to a lower platform there was a large crowd cramming onto the platform and all looking intently at something happening on the tracks. He could hear someone screaming and word began to filter through the crowd that there had been a ‘jumper’.
Paramedics and police were there dealing with the situation and Steven feeling he’d no wish to be party to whatever tragedy was unfolding took himself back up the stairs to then cross over the platform, so he could descend on the other side, having chosen to give up on the idea of the studio and come home instead.
Unbeknownst to him just as he was about to descend a decision had obviously been taken by the paramedics that the platform was too crowded to get through with the stretcher and they had crossed the platform to ascend on the very staircase that Steven was descending. He said it was one of the singularly most horrific sights, as the stretcher angled up came into full view, it carried a young black man screaming in agony and waiving two bloody stumps in the air where his legs (severed from the knee down) had been.
In all the tragedy he was not unaware of the irony of by dint of being the only person who apparently wanted to avoid the scene being the only one to get a grandstand view of this young mans horrific injuries and the subsequent sorrow he felt for a fellow human being brought so low that a suicide attempt had been the only way out.
This makes you look at the image in a whole different light.
Continuing with our 2020 feature of images from our Steven Campbell Calendar, Carol Campbell discusses our May selection:
Portrait of Two Cousins with the Same Mother who left them Alone when she was Seventeen. Collage on Canvas 1991.
In the couple of years leading up to this group of works some life changing events had taken place.
The following is from Duncan Macmillan’s book, The paintings of Steven Campbell The Story so Far:
‘In response to these events and in a dark mood, between 1990 and 1991 he made a series of collages. These mattered to him profoundly. It was as though he had to start from scratch again and he struggled with the brutal business of making them till his fingers bled. They took him months of painstaking labour. The Matisse technique of papier découpé, which in part they use, was designed to make picture making easy, but it is as though Campbell deliberately went out of his way to adopt a technique that makes collage difficult. These collages are made up, not just of cut-out paper, but from lengths of coloured string, cut and glued to the surface to create an effect like tapestry, embroidery, or more banally like haircord carpet and turning expression on its head.
In proportion to his wish to make something new from the language of painting, the limits of the painter’s art are something that Campbell has been more aware of than most. Here in this group of collages from 1990-91, he has consciously grappled with them directly.’
This is what Steven said about these works, in conversation with the author (Duncan Macmillan):
‘ I thought people would be attracted by the sheer craziness of building a work up starting with a piece of string. It was only the madness I was interested in. To do the task was all I believed in. I only believed in applying string every day’.
The image itself shows two seated male figures conjoined by a house and two butterflies. Steven used the butterflies often to represent a heart or love, at other times as a metamorphosis of change.
Steven’s brother Graham had died very suddenly a couple of years earlier so the figures although only acknowledged as cousins do represent the family bond symbolised in the shared house, the love of family and the change, for one, from a physical to a spiritual existence.
Our Steven Campbell Trust calendar April image, draws on what was to become a leitmotif for Steven for over a decade: Pinocchio.
Our family has for many, many years spent our summers in Italy with the majority of our time spent between Tuscany and Umbria around Cortona and Lago Trasimeno.
We first started going when our 3 children were small and it was then that we discovered a theme park on the outskirts of Perugia called Citta Della Domenica or Sunday City. I use the term theme park very loosely, as the park was set up in the 60’s and has changed little since then. It is part nature reserve, part sculpture-park but it does indeed have a theme and that theme is Pinocchio, not the Disneyland cartoon character but the much darker original story by Carlo Collodi.
Dotted around the park are various scenes from the story, some funny but others quite frightening, especially for young kids.
One in particular which struck Steven, was of Pinocchio sitting very dismally in a dark cave-like prison shackled to the wall. He did in fact make a painting of it called Pinocchio in Chains.
The Pinocchio here however is modelled on the souvenirs that crowd all the shops in the surrounding area from Lucca to Siena. They come as jointed figures, as in the painting, ranging in size from key rings to actual puppets, some even come as comically collapsible figures when you press the bottom of their stand.
Steven has chosen, on this occasion, to combine him with a female protagonist, a loosely based Heidi type figure, a pubescent girl/woman straddling both those worlds while embracing the tree that we could conjecture had been the one used to make our hero.
Steven had since the 80’s, with his Painting Ding Dong in the National Gallery of Scotland, drawn upon this female figure complete with her childlike braids, juxtaposed with her womanly strength or self knowledge.
Further Pinocchio images and information can be found in articles relating to Steven’s 1993 exhibition at the Talbot Rice Centre in Edinburgh, called Pinocchio’s Present.
Continuing with our 2020 feature of images from our Steven Campbell Calendar, our March selection is:
Portrait of the Lost Travelogue Writer
This painting is a personal favourite of mine being as it is dominated by the self-portrait of Steven. Although he never deliberately set out to paint himself it was rather just an innate understanding of his own face, which he would often pass his hand over while painting.
It also has a true poetry (like Man who Climbs Maps) mixed with the ridiculous quality of a Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster scenario.
The background is dominated by 3 recognisable tourist attractions, the Pyramids/Sphinx, the Vatican and Westminster Abbey. The harlequin styled figure to the right was inspired by an old postcard Steven bought in Aix en Provence while visiting Cezanne’s studio at Jas de Bouffan.
The blue pyramid shapes were inspired by a visit to the Picasso museum in the Marais, Paris and the Las Meninas series. He took the Picasso pyramid shape and turned it around adapting it to his needs while still acknowledging the original.
The falling figure harks back to his drawing of The Fern’s revenge on the Gardener, while the optical illusion skull was inspired again by old French postcards and the work of Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin with his profiled heads forming a white vase, which do you see first?
As in all of Stevens work, we’ve come upon our protagonist midst scene, like a still from a movie where we can guess at what has passed but must make up our own script as to his future.
Continuing our 2020 feature of images from our Steven Campbell Calendar, our February selection is: ‘Crash Cubism’ (The Neo-Classical Period).
This painting was created as part of Steven’s 1990 exhibition, On Form & Fiction, at the Third Eye Centre Glasgow, which is now the CCA.
The main gallery space was given over to the installation of a faux museum with large drawings forming the illusion of hand painted wallpaper with the paintings hung as if in a museum setting, complete with benches, table and ‘Je t’aims . . . moi non plus’ playing on a reel to reel tape recorder. In the side room Steven decided to exhibit stand alone large scale oils on canvas ,of which Crash Cubism was one.
‘The theme of English twentieth-century aesthetics, it’s particular struggle with Modernism (and it’s deluded belief that art itself held the ‘answer’) seems to be taken up in Crash Cubism.’
At this point in time Steven was reading a lot about Ruskin and architecture and design in general. His love of film is also part of the fabric that makes this exhibition the tour de force it has been acknowledged to be. Tarkovsky mixed with Westerns throws up a lot of recurring images used both in the installation and the stand alone paintings.
Crash Cubism is seen at that crucial point of danger like many of Steven’s paintings. It’s the ‘still’ from the movie where we the viewer get to see the danger approaching along the trestle track, about to shatter the cubist painting and hurtle our hero/the artist to an unknown fate.
For a number of years now, my fellow Trustees and I (The Steven Campbell Trust) have been delighted to receive as a Christmas Gift from Carol Campbell, a wonderful Steven Campbell Calendar, designed by Carol. These are always cherished and a delightful way to share Steven’s work and to be reminded throughout the year, of his wonderful paintings.
Recently Carol suggested that we make this a feature for our website, so for 2020 we’ve decided to share these works with you, with anecdotes from Carol on each painting.
We wish you a very Happy New Year and hope you enjoy!
Anecdote by Carol Campbell:
This painting was based on an actual sign we saw on the gate of a house in the hilltop village of Paciano in Umbria.
We had eaten lunch in the tiny cafe in the town and went for a wander afterwards and it was then Steven spotted the sign.
I’m embarrassed to admit that lacking a camera to photograph the image he pinched the sign, but at least it was put to good use!
The painting then became realised during his John Byrne, Paisley Pattern period, but you can see the warning and the symbols of the original sign such as the knife, gun and dog.
The Lytton Strachey look alike is Steven, with a nod to our own family with the addition of the little girl.
A Very Happy New Year from The Steven Campbell Trust!
The Steven Campbell Trust are delighted to share the recent publication of: The Art and Life of Steven Campbell by his wife Carol Campbell, published in Luncheon Magazine, 2019.
We would like to take this opportunity to share the introduction with you and provide a link for purchase.
‘The Scottish artist Steven Campbell is best known as a painter, but his wider work was postmodern, encompassing a range of interdisciplinary media. He was a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, which he attended after several years working at the Clydebridge Steelworks. He was proud of his working-class roots and this social context informed his work, which included performance, community art projects, appropriation, writing and immersive installations as well as his much-lauded paintings. He passed away in 2007 aged 54, and efforts are now being made to recontextualise his work and reveal his legacy.
Fashion designer Beca Lipscombe and fashion historian Mairi MacKenzie recently gave the 2019 Steven Campbell Trust Annual Lecture, entitled ‘Dressing Above Your Station’. They looked at Campbell’s life and work, reflecting upon his depiction of textiles and clothing as well as his personal wardrobe, in order to recount their own aspirations growing up in Scotland, and the routes they took in an attempt to develop a vernacular aesthetic’.
In this interview Steven’s widow, Carol Campbell, sits down with Mairi and Beca for a wonderfully personal talk about her life with Steven and chooses seven of her favourite works by him.
Above: Carol and Steven on the day of the Fulbright interview, London 1982.