It’s hard to believe now when you look at the extraordinary range of contemporary Scottish conceptual and installation art, but in the 1970s and 1980s the dominant medium for Scottish art was figurative painting, led by artists such as Peter Howson, Ken Currie, and John Bellany. Much of it was informed by abstraction, 60s conceptualism, performance art, and pop, but it harked back to older depictions of the human form: Picasso, Leger, and most obviously German Expressionism and New Objectivity, such as the symbolic works of Max Beckmann and the grotesquerie of Otto Dix and George Grosz. While the greatest English artist of the time, Lucien Freud, painted flesh in all its specificity, here were stylised, cartoonish figures, representing types or enigmatic puzzles rather than individual people; it sometimes seemed like a version of heroic Soviet realism, the most ideal of 20th century art movements.
Steven Campbell (1954-2007) was one of the chief artists of this era; yet with On Form and Fiction (1990) he showed Scottish art the way forwards, beyond figuration. For this installation, first shown at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow 11 March to 29 April 1990, later touring, and reconstructed at the RSA in Edinburgh in 2014, the raw material was his typical paintings and sketches, what Bill Hare called “large, enigmatic canvases which sought to confuse rather than enlighten”: images that drew on gothic horror, the playful gardens of Rococo art, and suited men captured in what could be frames from the movies of classic Hollywood. What was unique was the way he combined the paintings.
In a contemporary art gallery you have a lot of wall space and comparatively few paintings. You can walk around, inspecting each art work, and the ratio of people to art is such that the audience always dominates the art. In contrast, Campbell covered every inch of the wall: with sketches, over which were hung framed paintings, such that you could trace the evolution of images from one to the other. The result closed around you. And to create an atmosphere rather than just a series of painting, the installation was completed by a number of park benches to sit upon and a table which held a pot plant and a record player, playing the risque 60s pop hit “Je t’aime…moi non plus” by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg.
The result harked back to the dreams of German expressionism, but it wasn’t the enigmatic art of Beckmann’s later symbolist works which inspired so many Scottish imitators often more fit for the cover of a prog rock album than an art gallery. Instead it takes a very different vision, that could be traced to Belgian art nouveau pioneer Henry van der Velde and his admirers in the Dresden-founded Die Brücke (The Bridge) movement, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. They sought art which formed a total environment, which surrounded the artist, which can be seen in studio scenes such as the background of Kirchner’s Girl Under a Japanese Parasol. They focused on turning their studios into special places where everything was art, using friezes, murals, sculpture and decorative objects as much as framed paintings on the wall.
The achievement of Campbell is something that was far from the dreams of modernism. He gives the viewer art as decoration, art as an environment to be inside, not something to stand apart from and stare at. Inside, there is so much to see, and it feels a little like a studio as you can see the creative process from draft to final work. The jokily saucy music adds to the bohemian atmosphere, and even the pot plant adds a sense of domesticity. The result is not a gallery, which is a machine for presenting art to viewers and collectors, but a real place to be.
Steven Campbell was born in Glasgow in 1954. Before becoming an artist he worked as a maintenance engineer in a steel works. He attended Glasgow School of Art from 1978 to 82, where he was linked with group taught by Alexander Moffat that included other leading figurative painters Peter Howson and Ken Currie. He won a Fulbright scholarship to New York where he stayed from 1982 to 86 before moving back to Scotland, his return becoming a validation of a new Scottish art scene which it was no longer necessary to leave. He was at the vanguard of a wave of commercially successful Glasgow painters in the 1980s along with with Howson, Currie, and Adrian Wisniewski.
Although he began working in performance art, Campbell’s chief medium was painting, producing works that were typically large-scale, and adorned with similarly large-scale and prolix titles, such as The Dangerous Early and Late Life of Lytton Strachey (1985). A typically playful work, this depicts the early 20th century author, known for his analytical and sometimes mocking biographies of Eminent Victorians, in various guises including as a cabbage. Campbell struck a dandyish figure, with flowing hair and pointed beard, dressed habitually in cape and tweeds and carrying a cane, harking back to the days of Strachey and further to Victorian Britain.
In the late 1990s, while still only in his early-mid 40s, ill health slowed his workrate, although he received a boost in popularity with the suitably long-titled group show Charisma Presents: It May Be a Year of Thirteen Moons, But It’s Still the Year of Culture show at the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow in 2000. His 2002 show at Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh was the last major show of his life, but he was working on another when he died of a ruptured appendix in 2007.
Campbell’s legacy therefore is twofold. There is an enormous body of paintings, distinguished by their playfulness and their anarchic wildness. But while the paintings sometimes feel over-mannered, closed and self involved, manufacturing a private world of symbols that he never bothered to disclose he offers in Of Form and Fiction a contrary image, an authentic world of art that is a pleasure to enter. Influenced by performance art, whose values of ephemerality and personal encounter are antithetical to the conventional gallery, he saw that a painting is not necessarily something to contemplate dispassionately, but somewhere to be. The result was one of the most important and brilliant – and sheerly pleasurable, and endlessly fascinating – installations in the history of Scottish art.
Steven Campbell, Of Form and Fiction, 1990. Installation. Photo: 2014 reconstruction at Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.