Steven Campbell: ‘Spider on the Window, Monster in the Land’

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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.

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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)

 

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Final Fortnight in New York

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Here are some highlights from my final busy weeks in New York. I just want to thank everyone who’s made this residency possible: including the Steven Campbell Trust, the Saltire Society, the staff at the ISCP, and all of the models & artists I’ve collaborated with while I’ve been here. The whole experience has been inspiring and unforgettable, and I feel it will have an impact on my practice for years to come.

Tuesday 17th January

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This evening I spoke at an Artist’s Salon event at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme, discussing my own collaborative project and the work of Steven Campbell.

NY figure model Zeke Jolson also attended the talk, and was able to offer his own thoughts on the myth-making process from a model’s perspective. I invited attendees up to my studio afterwards to see some of the results of the project, receiving some very useful feedback and insight into the new work.

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Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya (aka. Akirash) , OWO NI KOKO, 2016 -1903 X 1269 – www.artwithakirash.com

ISCP resident Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya (aka. Akirash) also spoke at the Salon event, discussing his practice in which he utilizes ‘a multitude of techniques and materials, including repurposed objects, with which he creates mixed media paintings, sculptures, installations, video works, photographs, sound pieces and performances.’ To learn more about Akirash’s art and his non-profit organisation that seeks to empower children, youths and young mothers, please visit: www.artwithakirash.com

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Studio visit with Akirash

A couple of days after the Salon event, my partner Brian an I visited Akirash in his 2nd floor studio, where we were able to see some of his work in progress, including a piece made from reels of photo-negative film spilling down one wall like a waterfall; intricately woven sculptures unwinding from the ceiling; and dozens of hand-made suitcases and trunks displaying the currency of various countries.

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Akirash kindly lent me a piece for use in my final myth-making sessions with models: a netted sculpture woven from string and cardboard, that’s deceptively small and compact until it’s unfurled.

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Claire Paterson – Akirash’s sculpture unfurled during collaborative session with models

Wednesday 18th January

This afternoon I arranged a photo session with 2 models, Yolande and Daniel. With 2 people collaborating together, the myth-making process took on a different, very theatrical dynamic: the studio becoming more like a stage where various strange and spontaneous scenes were played out over the course of a couple of hours.

Thursday 19th January

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Outsider Art Fair at the Metropolitan Pavilion (www.outsiderartfair.com)

Today Brian & I attended a Third Thursday event at ISCP Director Susan Hapgood’s house, where she treated us to some homemade guacomole, and we got the opportunity to catch up with other residents. The ISCP then arranged for us to gain free access to the Outsider Art Fair at the Metropolitan Pavilion, where we were given complimentary cocktails.

Friday 20th January

This morning I had a meeting with visiting critic Xiaoyu Weng, a curator at the Guggenheim and the founding director of the Kadist Foundation’s Asia Programs. She gave me some great tips on artists to look up, including Chinese artist Yin-Ju Chen, who looks at the relationship between the cosmos and human behaviour, and ‘the varying methods we use to understand the universe and the rules which govern it.’ (www.yinjuchen.com).

In the afternoon, NY figure models Zeke and Tania came to my studio for a photo shoot, and we were able to use Akirash’s beautiful sculpture as an interactive prop. This was the second time model Zeke Jolson has worked with me, and I’m looking forward to getting his perspective on the results of this new collaboration.

Saturday 21st January

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Claire Paterson, Documenting Studio

Today I made photographic documentation of sculptures and props, before getting started on the long process of clearing out my studio: returning work to different artists around the city, and finding homes for all of the objects I’ve collected and found in thrift stores over the last couple of months.

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Photographic documentation of Amber Fleming’s wish-bone sculpture

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Sunday 22nd January

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This morning Brian & I were invited out to the apartment of NY figure model Yolande Hardison, who wanted to show us the work of her late mother Ruth Inge Hardison – a sculptor and photographer.(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Inge_Hardison).

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It was a real honour being shown around Yolande’s apartment and getting to see her mother’s wonderful work. I’m actually planning to dedicate a full blog post to my trip to Yolande’s house – which I’ll put online in a couple of week’s time.

Thursday 26th January

Today I had a meeting in my studio with Valerie Smith, a curator at Barnard. She introduced me to the work of various different artists, including Cerith Wyn Evans, who focuses on adopting ‘a communal rather than a single authorial voice’.

In the afternoon I headed down to DUMBO for a meeting with Anne Barlow at Art in General, where we talked about future possibilities for my collaborative project, and ways it might possibly be developed.

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Smack Mellon gallery

Brian and I finished off the day by visiting the Smack Mellon gallery, which had an exhibition on by figurative artist Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze. After dusk fell, we took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to see the city at night.

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Friday 27th January

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This morning I finished emptying my studio, and after saying goodbye to residents and staff, handed in my keys.

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In the afternoon, B and I visited the Neue Gallery, before heading a couple of blocks up the road to the Guggenheim, where we were particularly drawn to a work by Sun Xun called Mythological Time, an animated video projection depicting a strange world where past, present and future seem to coexist, expanding ‘the traditional notion of history to include half-remembered or fantastical images, myths and ideologies.’

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Mythological Time, an animated video projection by Sun Xun

We then had a dusk-time stroll through Central Park, stumbling across the huge Alice in Wonderland statue overlooking one of the lakes.

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Saturday 28th January

My final day in New York was spent at my sister’s apartment, posing for photos that will hopefully become part of a new series of work she’ll be starting soon. I love the fact that we’ll both be showing up in each other’s paintings over the coming year!

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In the evening, G, Brian & I went to an opening put on by ISCP resident Laura Fitzgerald, where she showcased a new body of work in her Grandfather’s Manhattan apartment.

It was wonderful seeing Laura’s intricate, beautifully rendered drawings displayed in creative ways throughout the apartment: pieces arrayed as place settings at the dining-room table, and little sketches tucked, half-secretively, into drawers.

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It was also a treat getting to settle down and watch some of her film pieces in the study and bedroom, as well as reading some of her own distinctly quirky and philosophical musings pinned up in the apartment’s bathrooms. After Laura’s opening, we all went out for a drink to toast my final night in New York.

I’d like to finish this final NY post by putting up a quote by the New Mexico artist Elizabeth Kay, who recently wrote to me with her interpretation of Lemurian Pole Shift (below), one of the paintings I produced while on the ISCP residency. Liz has been a major collaborator in this project from its inception, & has, in a way, acted as a long-distance creative consultant throughout the entire process – offering thoughts and advice that have continued to have a massive influence on my practice.

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Claire Paterson, Lemurian Pole Shift (Becoming Part III)

Liz says, ‘Claire, it is a fairly quiet Friday in Santa Fe and a good opportunity to write you as I look at your painting “Lemurian Pole Shift (Becoming Part III).” I want to say again that I’m mightily impressed by how you are following through with your ability to take on the New York art scene, weave what you have found there into your myth-finding project and orchestrate some of this into a powerful (big!) painting that is beautiful and disturbing. The beauty of the painting (for me) lies in its luscious colours, your skill at rendering the human form, and the visual counterpoint of those enigmatic lines superimposed on the picture that bring to mind a target, or a game, or a labyrinth.

‘The disturbing aspect is that the subject appears to represent a regression of some sort. A grown man clutching an oversized rocking horse suggests mental disorder. The curious object on top of the horse’s head, like something between a baseball cap and a duck bill, adds an odd and cocky element to the picture.

‘Given the hideous political times we are entering it is tempting for me to see this painting as an image of the dysfunctional, immature, crumpled masculine. Since we can’t see the subject’s face we cannot be certain it actually is a man, though the foot and muscular arms look more masculine than feminine. The figure occupies a shallow red space marked by long black shadows. The red space feels ‘hot’ or ‘burning’, suggesting (perhaps) some quality (mental/spiritual/physical) that is being ‘cooked’ or is in a state of being transformed. The saccrine sweet, vaguely idiotic expression painted on the rocking horse reiterates the impression of an infantile state of mind.

‘Having said all that, I now move to the title of the painting for further clues as to what it might be about.

‘ “Lemuria” (I am now reading on Wikipedia), is believed by some (disproved by science) to be a continent that sunk under the ocean in a cataclysmic change, “such as a pole shift.” For occultists, the idea of Lemuria was flypaper for the imagination. Madam Blavatsky believed Lemuria’s extraordinarily weird looking early human inhabitants to have had highly developed psychic powers, including telepathic communication. According to occult lore, Lemurians migrated to Atlantis, bred with beasts and evolved (or de-volved) into Cro-Magnon people.

‘So there it is… an alternative myth to the standard classics. And I have learned something!’

Quote provided by Elizabeth Kay

I’d like to thank everyone for reading, and for following some of my thoughts throughout the course of my residency. I’ll continue to write on this page, and over the next few weeks will do more posts about my favourite Steven Campbell paintings, in recognition of the fact that this project has been made possible by the very first Steven Campbell New York Scholarship, and Steven’s creative legacy.