This weekend represents the last chance to see Love, Collages by Steven Campbell at Tramway in Glasgow – an exhibition that features a series of collages that are as visually stunning as they are conceptually complex. Yesterday, I visited the show for a second time, to have a closer look at the work before it comes down. The first time I went was during Love’s public opening back in January: a bustling event that was packed with so many people it was often difficult to see the work. The fact that such a huge number of visitors had made it to the opening despite the terrible weather conditions at the time – braving ice, snow and delayed trains just for a chance to attend – serves as testament to how popular and relevant Campbell’s work remains, appealing to the imaginations of public and critics alike.
Though it was exciting to see Campbell’s collages during the busy public opening, and share in the enthusiasm of other admirers, I enjoyed viewing the pieces in the quieter atmosphere of the gallery space yesterday afternoon. Campbell’s work lends itself to solitary moments of contemplation and repeated viewings. These particular works employ a very novel means of construction, with lengths of painted string applied to the surface of the canvas to create a tapestry-like effect – a time-consuming process that evidences great dedication on the part of the artist.
Steven Campbell, Birth of Eurithia with Drowned Family
In previous blog posts, I’ve talked about how Campbell’s work opens itself up to multiple interpretations, many of which will be unique to whoever’s viewing them. One of my own personal favourites in this show is ‘Birth of Eurithia with Drowned Family.’ Here, we see what appears to be a family relaxing in a domestic setting, framed against the backdrop of an ordinary suburban street. In this setting, a body of water floats in defiance of gravity, drowning the two central figures that seem utterly oblivious to their own demise as they relax on the living room couch.
In the piece’s title, Campbell appears to be referencing the Greek myth of Orithyia, which tells of the abduction of a mortal woman by a violent God, who snatches her as she plays on the banks of the river Illisos near Athens. Perhaps the baby in the picture is the metaphorical equivalent of a new-born Orithyia, who has just entered a strange and dangerous world. As the parents drown – their heads submerged in a floating river – the baby lies on its banks, ready to be abducted or snatched away by other sinister forces.
Steven Campbell, Penelope at Home Waiting for Dad’s Return
In Greek myths families are constantly under threat from dark forces, and this seems to be a running theme in Campbell’s collages. The friction between domesticity and danger also features in the piece Penelope at Home Waiting for Dad’s Return, in which Penelope – in her role as faithful wife – suffers a tragic accident, while her son plays with matches on the living-room floor. The ‘Dad’ in the title could be Campbell himself, represented by a small portrait on the wall of the family home. Here, the artist appears to have cast himself in the role of Odysseus, adventuring in the imaginative realm whilst events unravel in his absence: accidents and dangerous forces beyond his control. The time-consuming way that these collaged works were constructed, could be a ritual Campbell performed to fend off apprehension about these dangerous forces – a form of artistic catharsis.
Steven Campbell, The Family of the Accidental Angel
Another of my favourite pieces is The Family of the Accidental Angel, which offers a wealth of striking imagery defying easy interpretation. In this work, a family sits on the banks of a river, whilst a mysterious figure appears in a shimmering waterfall.
There are distinct hints of the mythological about this Eden-like scene. Unusually for a Campbell piece, the male figure is nude. Having shed his clothes – and perhaps with them the trappings of a socially constructed identity – he seems to be communing with the figure within the waterfall, and a twining rope connects them like an umbilicus. The ambiguous relationship between these two characters suggests that they may in fact be reflections of one another – the apparition within the waterfall a shadow-Anima, manifested with properties of the opposite sex.
The inclusion of a host of real feathers glued near the bottom of the composition adds another element of mystery, suggesting that one of the figures has recently shed an angel’s wings.
Steven Campbell, Dream of the Hunter’s Muse
In another blog post, I’ve written about the painting ‘Hunter Looking for his Glasses’, in which a gun wielding hunter attempts to track down the elusive meaning of art. The Hunter also makes his presence known in this exhibition, stalking through the collaged scenery on a violent quest for truth.
In ‘Dream of the Hunter’s Muse’ Campbell utilizes imagery that suggests something of the power-dynamic between artist and subject in representational painting. Here, the ‘muse’ or the object of the hunter/artist’s gaze appears to be the victim of violence. Nude and surrounded by slain animals, she also seems to have been shot for the hunter’s gratification. Campbell would have been aware of the issues surrounding the appropriation of identity that’s involved when one person represents, or misrepresents, another in art. But he’s muddied the waters here. Like all power-dynamics in art, the relationship isn’t simply one-sided – the muse has her own dreams, and gives every appearance of being relaxed and serene as she reclines in her own spilled blood. The question remains: is the hunter/artist dreaming of the muse, or is she dreaming of him?
One of the most exciting things about Campbell’s work is that it’s open to multiple interpretations. What may have specific meanings and associations for me, will likely be entirely different for another viewer. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t been to see Love yet, to make it along to this brilliant show at Tramway over its final weekend (Saturday 12-5pm, Sunday 12-5pm).