Dressing Above Your Station is a virtual exhibition conceived and curated by Beca Lipscombe and Mairi MacKenzie. It is produced by Panel and developed in partnership with ISODESIGN and Rob Kennedy.
Dressing Above Your Station is generously funded by Creative Scotland and Glasgow Life, the charity that delivers culture and sport in the city. It is supported by ISODESIGN and The Glasgow School of Art and presented by Tramway, part of Glasgow Life.
November: 1992 Acrylic on Paper 178×149.2 cm Pinocchio, The Habit of the Shrike
The following extract is from the Catalogue essay by Michael Bracewell that accompanied Steven’s 2017 exhibition at Marlborough London.
‘For so often the young men in Campbell’s paintings, absorbed, swept along or subjugated by weird scenes, reminiscent of fairy tale or myth, but then skewed into absurdity, seem despite themselves to be (and are sometimes confirmed to be, in the titles of the pictures) seekers-after-truth, of one sort or another. They might be poets, amateur philosophers, witness participants in a dysfunctional’Pilgrims Progress’ – or perhaps just observers of these pursuits: chance bystanders, local boys, who had somehow become amnesiac victims, or protagonists in some cosmic game of ‘Cluedo’.
Murder mystery becomes art mystery, becomes “the myth of themselves” that Hynes identifies in his definition of the ‘charade’. Pinocchio, the Habit of the Shrike (1990) depicts a dark landscape with fir trees, a stream, toadstools at the foot of some rocks; and a figure that resembles Campbell himself, his face and upper body in semi shadow, casually yet ritualistically seated on a folded chair, his right hand resting on the handle of an upended tennis racket. A handsomely feathered shrike ( a bird that impales insects and small vertebrates on thorns or spikes, in order to tear them into more manageable pieces) perched on a briar. Meanwhile a gold haired Pinocchio figure, painted limbs scuffed and worn, his ‘liar’s’ nose obscenely and viciously extended to a sharp point, reaches out his long right arm, and impales the seated figure’s stomach with his thin, pointed finger.’ – Michael Bracewell
Steven has revisited his depiction of Lytton Strachey complete with cricket cap only this time he puts himself, as artist, into the central role. He has created the Pinocchio wooden boy who is resentful at the artists lack of ability to transform him completely into a physical reality.
December: A4 size drawing Ink on paper from a series of drawings and prints Steven did based on a merging of the life of St Francis of Assisi with the legend of the Apprentice pillar at Rosslyn Chapel.
Steven was not particularly religious but he was extremely spiritual and dearly loved St Francis and everything he represented. We would make annual pilgrimages to the Church in Assisi which houses the amazing Giotto frescoes of the life of the Saint. I remember he even volunteered to travel out to help in the aftermath of the earthquake that caused such damage to the town and the church.
He also brought along a young Franciscan friar to talk at the creative arts project (9 V) that he had set up to encourage the teenagers of the 9 rural villages around Stirling to get involved in various cultural activities from life drawing to script writing, film directing, music etc. It still resonates today with the young people who attended it all those years ago. Several of whom went on to careers in the arts.
This piece was created for an exhibition called ‘Chesterfield Dreams’ at the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney in the Spring of 1996. Steven had moved away from painting at this time and had found a new fascination in working with clay, found objects, velvet and leather fabrics and a resin called (if I remember correctly) Crystal Sheen, an epoxy coating that he used on several works and continued to use even when he returned to painting. You can see how he used it in a similar way to decorate the jewel like eyes on the crown in the portrait of Joan Sutherland, a commission for the Glasgow Concert Hall.
Steven had been struggling with his own mental health issues for a number of years and had fallen out of the public gaze but he continued to work every day. As he said himself: ‘I have an impossibility not to work’ . . . listen to Stark Talk interview 2006: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p090x8hv
He was, as ever, endlessly reading, watching movies, listening to music and making his own crazy Campbell mix in his head. Alfred Hitchcock was a great favourite at this time, hence the title of the piece Harry to Heaven, the Harry referred to being the eponymous character from the movie The Trouble with Harry a black comedy from 1955, where a dead body is found and while no one in the hamlet really minds they all come up with theories as to how they are responsible.
I always feel it’s better to allow Steven to speak for himself whenever possible so the following is taken again from the Stark Talk radio interview in which he gives his own opinion of his mental health at the time and his thoughts on the exhibition at the Pier.
STEVEN: You still have this other thing you know, of the pointlessness of it all. All these stupid questions of existence and everything. The constant echoes that go on in my mind all the time, it’s like constantly saying this, what’s the reason? Why? Why? Why? No reason! No reason! The impossibility of it all.
EDI: Well between 1993 and 2002, that was the time between two big shows at The Talbot Rice Gallery
STEVEN: Jesus years! Why is it always 7?
EDI: That’s nine, that’s nine
STEVEN: Is it 9? I thought it was 7…. I had one up in Orkney
EDI: Chesterfield Dreams
STEVEN: I loved that show! I mean who’d think of it, the back of a couch a sofa then cut a strange shape in it and then put in a white plaster sculpture inside it as if the chair itself is dreaming.
And that last sentence sums up for me everything I continue to miss from my life. The poetry of a mind that can see the dream where the rest of us only see the chair.
In May 1994, the worlds largest commercial operator of airports, BAA plc, launched a different type of programme – an art programme – to enhance passenger, staff and business partner experience of all its airport environments and develop an art collection of national merit.
“I want to emphasise the importance of first impressions and the need to give our visitors a strong sense of Britain’s energy as soon as they arrive. That could be done if we used our airports, train links and ports as opportunities to give a fresh impression. BAA is determined to champion British artists at its airports.”
Tony Blair, Prime Minister.
Steven was approached to come up with an idea for a large painting for Glasgow Airport and the following is his own description as it appeared in the catalogue for BAA art programme: Art at the Airports.
“This painting is made up of three views of the City of Glasgow: the Clyde Estuary; the view from the countryside; a view from the University Tower.
The symbolism of the painting centres around the story of the emblem of Glasgow. It also takes account of St Mungo’s stories, trying to give history a vision. I’ve aimed to get the balance between nature and the city; the ‘Dear Green Place’, idea.
It’s been tempting to add something dramatic, but it would have been the wrong thing to do for the location. It’s not the place to be dark and moody. No way. I want people to be uplifted; invigorated. I love Glasgow!”
The two sketches shown here both feature fritillaries which are a nod to Mackintosh but also to the fact that they grew wild in the ground surrounding our farmhouse in the Fintry hills. The signpost was a leitmotif in Steven’s earlier work based around his invented character Hunt and often depicted Oxford to Salisbury, but in this case shows directions to areas surrounding our then home. The background hills are the view that Steven often painted and form part of the vista that can be seen from our Kippen home.
Over the years Steven was constantly researching new material. He could be inspired by a building, a view, an article he read, remembrances of times past, like us all, his mind was a sum of many parts.
This particular image was made from just such a combination. The building top left is Rosslyn Chapel. He had been told of the existence of Rosslyn by his good friend the photographer Ron O’Donnell who took us there on a visit. From that point on he was captivated not only by the building, it’s extraordinary carvings with their hidden messages but by the story of the Apprentice Column. N
The story of the murder of the apprentice by his master was to feature in several works over the next few years. (Look top right to see the column and the apprentice.)
Moving across to the central figures we can see the Green Man in conflict with a falling figure dressed in a quasi prison suit of arrows. The Green Man is believed to symbolise the circle of life, death and rebirth. He is a pagan symbol that heralds Spring after a long winter and the renewal of lush vegetation such as can be seen in the mid ground and foreground of the painting.
I was listening to my good friend Edi Stark’s podcast with Steven and he talks about the crucifix in terms of composition and I now can see so often how he employs it in his work, as he does here.
‘The reason they did so many crucifixions in the Renaissance was nothing to do with the fact they were getting paid for it, it’s cause it’s the best thing you can use for a sense of composition in a painting. As soon as you’ve got a crucifix in a painting you’re on a winner right away. Cause you get that angle shot in there from the right, Jesus is hanging up the top so you get a tree coming in from the left and then low down you have an opposite side and then you have something heavy down to the bottom to show the weight of the cross and all the rest of it but you always had the cross to start with . . . whereas I don’t!’
Easy to see all of that being employed here. The two round straw targets are the pmersonal experience . . . memory of the NY subway tragedy (mentioned in previous entries) where Steven witnessed a young black man with the bottom part of his legs missing after a failed suicide attempt. To the left we have the figure of the young woman being raised from the ground by the power of the Green Man, a symbolic birth of Spring while the group to the right with the child represents the 3 ages of man/woman.
The Family of the Accidental Angel
Collage on Canvas 1991
174 x 121.5 cm
This collage was exhibited as part of the LOVE exhibition curated by Lynsey Young for Tramway.
The notes in the paperback which accompanied the exhibition read as follows:
‘These large scale, predominantly two dimensional collages were each made over a period of weeks and months. Campbell worked on them relentlessly, going out of his way to make the process as labour intensive as possible and working instinctively with his materials which included feathers, found paper, textiles and tapestry kits that he completed himself.’
At this time we lived in a remote farmhouse where family life centred around our kitchen which was warmed by an ancient sky blue AGA. It doubled as our ‘tumble dryer’ as we would never have had such a modern piece of equipment, preferring always a good old fashioned pulley which I still swear by to this day.
The area above the AGA had 3 thin poles secured to the wall with wooden batons so it was quickly commandeered by Steven as the ideal way to dry the painted string he would plan to use the following day.
As was mentioned in the essay, this method of working was laborious and time consuming but that in itself was the key to his desire to make the process such an important part. The ritualistic nature soothed his mind in the same way that shell shocked WW1 veterans would create wonderful models from matchsticks.
Instead of gluing the string directly onto the canvas and then painting on top, he would work out his colour palette for the area to be worked on and cut metre length pieces of string which would be individually painted and set to dry across the poles ready to be used the following day.
If you study the area, top left, which becomes the wing and the figure emerging/retreating from the waterfall you get some idea of the complexity and labour intensity of the task. The wing itself is akin to that of a butterfly alighting on a sun kissed rock to rest and it is the visual trick of the eye which seems to see it form an attachment with the figure giving him at once, in that moment of perception, the appearance of an Angel with the mother and child being akin to the Holy Family.
The figure in the waterfall referenced an old legend in the area where we lived that at the time of the Rising in 1745 some prominent Jacobites had hidden behind the waterfall ( close to our house) when being pursued by the English soldiers. Most likely untrue but romantic nonetheless and it was fun for our children to try it out.
The following is again a quote from Lynsey Young’s writing for the exhibition:
‘The work progressed slowly and painstakingly at the kitchen table, amid the rhythms of family life, the resulting works are testament to Campbell’s modest needs, his restless imagination and his experimental nature but, above all, to his sensitivity to the world around him.
As he said himself, ‘I’m in art for the romance, the beauty of it.’
No Title from the Extreme Sports Series Oil on Canvas 234 x 226cm
The paintings in this short series were completed or not (final piece still on wall in his studio) in the months leading up to Steven’s death, hence the fact that they remain untitled except for the overarching series name of Extreme Sports, which was what Steven had called them when describing the ideas to me.
It seems such a simple idea but at the same time so left field and such an insight into the workings of his mind, to take innocuous pastimes and by a shift in positioning, or an addition, completely turn the world upside down.
Here the two activities of gardening, a safe and homely pastime and archery, more dangerous it’s true but in a very disciplined way, combine to bring real threat. The little girls in their greenhouse remain blissfully unaware of the looming danger from the archer aiming for his target placed directly behind them. There is no certainty of the outcome one way or the other, but it has the frisson of danger which give rise to the series title.
Their protection lies in the figure emerging from the chimney seemingly harmless, but look again to see what he is reaching for above his head, a wooden puppet figure of Pinocchio – is he throwing it to save it from the smoke emerging from the chimney, with its implication of fire, or trying to grab hold, to draw it downwards to destruction, so the viewer decides is it to protect or destroy?
Similarly, the woodsman continues to cut the trees around them down . . . to fashion more Pinocchios? or to decimate the treehouses? an acknowledgment of the circular nature of our world and the recklessness of such easy unthinking destruction.
The background, top left, is, as ever a mix of Scottish and Italian buildings but the hills are those he painted most frequently being the ones he would see daily from our woodland home. The figure of the archer on the right is dressed in his tartan trews and motorcycle boots, although he never owned a motorcycle and is a direct representation of Steven (a thank you here to Beca Lipscombe and Mairi MacKenzie for making me look with fresh eyes at the textiles and design elements in his paintings) and like Steven himself is dressed with two belts, both accurate depictions of his own, which he wore daily which now adorn the family ‘memory box’.
Sad Dirty Little Angel Acrylic and ink on paper Created 1989 – 1990
This work is currently in storage at the National Gallery of Scotland having first been exhibited at The Third Eye Centre, Glasgow (currently the CCA) and most recently as part of Generation: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland.
The image I have selected is a personal favourite titled: Sad Dirty Little Angel. It is was one of the large acrylic works which rest against a backdrop of ink drawings on various subjects, which were of great interest to Steven while he was making the installation. These range from:
– The films of Tarkovsky most especially Mirror – The architecture of Claude Nicolas Ledoux – The writings and drawings of John Ruskin – Cezanne’s Provençal landscape – Chippendale furniture
Countless more associations are to be found by the viewer of the Installation, images of which can be found on the National Gallery’s website.
The painting shows a descending figure, more demon-like in appearance than Angel, but Steven tried to show its humanity and remorse with the hand raised to the face in a gesture of contrition while accentuating the idea of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven.
Lucifer whose name means Star of the Morning, had a high ranking position in the Angelic Host and was called ‘The Guardian Cherub’:
“So I drove you in disgrace from the Mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendour. So I threw you to earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings” (Ezekiel 28)
The figure falls to earth in front of classical buildings drawn from influences of Ledoux’s architecture and reminiscent of renaissance Italy, a country held dear to all our hearts.
I spoke at the beginning of my love for this image. I have always been drawn to the poetic side of Steven’s works, which in their complexity of imagery and cultural reference offer so many paths of interpretation to the viewer. For me it is the mix of longing and regret that hold great sway and touch upon what makes us human.
The pattern making Steven employed in this painting was to become the style of his expression for the next couple of years. I have included an extract from October’s 2020 calendar entry, as I touched upon the background to the painting then.
‘Steven had travelled north to Elgin by train and spent the day sketching portraits with John, both men admitting some trepidation to the meeting and the task in hand. On his return Steven felt that a straight forward portrait just did not fit with the character of the man and wanted to go deeper to the roots that John was proud of, hence the left field idea of portraying him only through pattern, ‘Paisleycus Byrnicus Virus invading Mr Gray’.
As an aside, to set the record straight, the Mr Gray of the title was not a reference to Alasdair Gray or Lanark’s skin condition of ‘dragon hide’, but rather alludes to the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. He became increasingly intrigued by the possibilities that working with pattern offered him and it became a rich vein in his work’
The painting is loosely based on ‘Las Meninas’ painted in 1656 by Diego Velazquez.
As both artist and supremo of the composition Steven dominates the centre of the canvas, with the figure of John standing to his left, with the dwarf front right from the Velazquez painting, while top right references the figure in the doorway from Las Meninas. The little dog front bottom is a direct reference to Pablo Picasso’s 1957 in depth study of the painting, so it is a Picasso dog rather than a Velazquez one.
Dazzling in form, colour and composition this painting is a triumph of imagination and skill.
The show was made up entirely of collages dating from 1988-1991.
These works were produced in a manner that made the process as labour intensive as possible. They were a distraction for a troubled mind and in the way the returning soldiers of WW1 would make elaborate matchstick models, so it was for Steven a drawn out laborious practice, where the only thoughts were formulated around the applying of the materials.
This was one of the first pieces he created using cut paper, string and sticky backed vinyl. Where the paintings were produced rapidly sometimes in as short a time scale as 5 days these works, especially the complex string pieces took weeks or even months.
To give you an idea of how he would make the process a fundamental part of the whole, the string, which most artists would apply and then paint over was in fact all cut to metre lengths, hand painted in the colours he planned to use the following day, and dried over the Aga in our kitchen. He set up special drying poles (like a clothes pulley) which allowed the string to dry slowly before being cut to size.
This collage was one of the first and like his paintings captures only that moment. There is no before, there is no after only the Now and the imagination of the viewer.
Frottage – ‘the technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art’ and Void ‘a completely empty space’, whereby the Title and the Piece become an endless conundrum.
As an interesting aside. There had been a negative comment in a newspaper or journal (I have to admit to failure of memory here) to do with the title, where the writer was complaining having mixed the art definition of Frottage with the word Frotteurism – the sexual urge relating to the touching or rubbing of genitals against the body of another. I do recall Stuart Morgan (Pre-eminent art critic and writer) who we had got to know when he stayed with us when working on his piece for the Fruitmarket Gallery/Riverside exhibition, offering to go into ‘bat for him’ if there was any more discussion or complaints about the title.
More info, essays and interviews can be found in the catalogue to the Tramway exhibition:
From the series Babette Nozière. Acrylic on paper.
While still at GSA and working in the Mixed Media department led by Roger Hoare Steven created several performance pieces, the most famous being based on the life of the famous French poisoner/murderess and darling of the Surrealist
Movement Violette Nozière, its title: Poised Murder.
The piece itself had a stage set consisting of a black and white chequered floor and several portraits of Violette herself. There were three couples plus a detective in the cast and the movement was performed to a soundtrack provided by Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives ‘The Bar’.
The couples enacted highly styled murders either strangulation, stabbing etc rearranging positions and freezing as the lights flickered on and off while the 40’s style detective (after Phillip Marlowe) complete with trench coat, Homburg hat and magnifying glass circled a running track on his hands and knees looking for clues.
For those interested in Violette’s story I recommend reading: Violette Nozière – A Story of Murder in 1930’s Paris by Sarah Maza.
It was to be a quarter of a century later that Steven decided to revisit and update this creation.
The intervening years had seen such a wealth of research: reading, visual, travel, film, music, the list is endless but the most influential at the point of this creation were the hospital of St Paul de Mausole in St Rémy (where Van Gogh had lived and worked) / Brut Art / the French literary character Fantômas by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain and the films of Roman Polanski.
Already you get a glimpse into his creative process and a mind that was constantly humming with endless ideas and random connections that all make sense through the ‘Campbell Filter’.
This painting formed part of a series called ‘Babette Nozière’, a sister to the aforementioned Violette. Babette was a complete invention, Violette having been an only child. To the left of the painting is Violette herself caught in the process of unmasking the Fantômas character by pulling aside the nightgown made famous in Polanskis film Repulsion, in an attempt to save her sister Babette shown a la Catherine Deneuve, complete with blond wig just behind Fantômas.
The graffiti on the right was inspired by his interest in outsider art and art of the insane as seen on several visits to the hospital, which still operates at St Paul de Mausole in St Remy and the museum of Dr Guislain in Ghent.