PRINT December 1984


IT IS NOT ALWAYS easy to identify things. This picture is full of tangible, everyday objects, each painted in its own way, not named but nicknamed. Areas are dealt with by the painter as if they existed independently of the surrounding composition. The white has been drawn so quickly through the heavy impasto below it that it looks like a sliced pizza. It ends up a little like tweed, a little like a check suit, but not a lot like either. Instead it is one more item in a collection of random details that have decided to go it alone.

Nor is it easy to tell what is going on. Admittedly a lot is happening. It is even happening on a kind of stage where every element is on display. The trouble is that although there are nods toward traditional methods of leading the eye around the canvas, giving enough clues to form the basis of a narrative, they remain only nods. Trying to piece together a coherent story is out of the question; whatever happens happens simultaneously all over the canvas. After looking long and hard the pieces still seem only elements of an ungraspable whole.

Perhaps it is only possible to begin by picking a thing and an event together. Take that leg, for instance–the one poking through the wall.

At the climax of P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith, Psmith and Eve Halliday are in the living room of a cottage on the grounds of Blandings Castle, held at gunpoint by Edward Cootes, a burglar pretending to be a valet, and Aileen Peavey, a gangster’s moll and poetess. Just when things are looking bad an accident occurs. At that moment “there came from above their heads a sudden sharp crackling sound, and almost simultaneously a shower of plaster fell from the ceiling, followed by the startling appearance of a long, shapely leg, which remained waggling in space.”1 Attached to the leg is Freddie Threepwood, busy searching the bedroom for a diamond necklace. In a matter of seconds the tables are turned. Looking up and spotting the leg, Cootes fires in alarm but succeeds only in bringing down a quantity of plaster. The leg is withdrawn, Psmith jumps to his feet, grabs a chair, hits Cootes over the head with it, then relieves him of the pistol. For the moment, at least, disaster is averted.

Steven Campbell read all of P.G. Wodehouse. Then he half forgot it. So, in T’was Once an Architect’s Office in Wee Nook, 1984, we find something like Freddie Threepwood’s leg protruding through the wall. It has entangled itself in a ’50s bookshelf, sending one seated man tumbling backwards while another, apparently stuck inside a table, clutches his hair in alarm. The maquette of a building is flung aside, the ceiling bursts apart to reveal part of a stained-glass dome, and, while a piece of archaic chemical apparatus rattles into activity, the floor collapses to reveal the ghost of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who—like Van Helsing, the pious Dutch philosopher responsible for Dracula’s death in Bram Stoker’s novel—has become one of a set of figures occurring regularly in the paintings.

Wodehouse once claimed that he wrote novels with a “cast” of characters in mind, thinking perhaps of the repertory companies of his youth. In his preface to Summer Lightning he defended himself from charges of repetition by openly admitting their truth. “A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made a nasty remark about my last novel that it contained all the old characters under different names. . . . He will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”2 Like Wodehouse, Campbell insists on varying a basic pattern. His actors, all male, hike, camp, play tennis, hold debates, cook soup, hunt, and conduct scientific experiments. Unfitted for what they do, with bloated anatomies and a passion for tweeds, they are doomed to failure despite their good intentions. They collide with signposts or each other; wake up to find that overnight the landscape has turned into a bog; confuse maps with reality and try to climb them . . . Accidents are an inevitability. After all, they do provide a structure for the paintings.

Precariousness has a long history in Campbell’s work. Man Amazed at the Height He Is Up, 1983, shows a hiker on a ledge, with fir-trees behind him and a precipice in front, terrified that he might fall but exhilarated by the danger; Happy Camper, 1983, with a bulky figure plummeting head first off a cliff, is an updated version of Hunt’s Fall, 1982, the title painting of a long series featuring a man called Hunt. An early performance, Opera, 1981, based on the story of Ajax, was to culminate with the hero stepping onto a tripping device center-stage and falling sideways to be impaled on his own sword. The performance never took place before an audience, though Campbell prepared props, which doubled as art objects in their own right. That Ajax was to have been played by Campbell himself, though, reveals a few of his major assumptions: that the artist is a hero, a fool, above all an overreacher. Ideally, then, his art will aspire to a condition of hyperbole in which heroism, folly, and ambition are raised to the highest degree.

Time passing and time ceasing, movement and stillness, preoccupy Campbell. The inspiration for Opera was an illustration for a Greek statuette of Ajax falling to his death.3 Because falling, like flying, was problematic for Greek sculptors, the figure seems to hover clumsily, apparently reaching out as if a friend were there to rescue him. Similarly in an interview Campbell discussed William Hogarth’s Lord Hervey and his Friends, 1738, in which a clergyman standing on a chair to look at a church steeple through a telescope topples backwards into a pond.4 Another obsession has been with gesture; in all his work figures posture and signal without any meaning emerging, theatricality without expression. One early performance, Poised Murder, 1982, consisted of a series of tableaux vivants that began with the stylized violence of Apache dancing and ended with suggestions of actual assault. The setting consisted of paintings of newspaper photographs of Violette Nozière, the famous murderer.

Campbell’s use of Romantic irony is characteristic; it is a way of darting to and fro between the terms of art and life in order to make serious statements comically while modifying the pretension of his stance. In the Greek bronze and the Hogarth painting the statement is clear enough; for Campbell it is that falling and remaining in place, acting and suffering, are identical in a work of art. As John Berger has noted, when movement is represented by stillness “the ensuing images are still static whilst referring to the dynamic world beyond their edges, and this poses the problem of what is the meaning of that strange contrast between static and dynamic. Strange because it is both so flagrant and so taken for granted.”5

From claiming that Campbell permits his viewer to stop taking it for granted, if only for a moment, it is a short step to seeing him as a doctrinaire deconstructionist in search of the aporetic in painting. The truth is more interesting than that. His thematic preoccupations and his practice are intimately connected. His figures pass time; so does he. They bumble; he bumbles. It is his ineptitude that brings him to the point of insight. Perspective is not remade in a picture such as Through the Ceiling, Through the Floor etc., 1984, a “sequel” to the waggling leg, in which the character’s left and right legs have somehow been reversed and turned inside out and the floor slopes into the distance at the bottom of the canvas. On the contrary, Campbell was trying his best to achieve a traditional perspective, making mistakes and leaving them. The same happens in Wee Nook Cottage, 1983, another waggling leg picture, in which the locale is (confusingly) specified.6 By fixing his mind on the desiderata of his ideal painting, he is almost bound to fall short. Since his method is to complete a painting in six days, with no preliminary drawing, he must rely on known factors, before forcing himself to improvise. This ends in buffo painting, in which the object is to emerge triumphant over the forces of disorder.

So great is the emphasis on the battle between order and disorder that an unusual generic claim can be made for Campbell’s work. Gradually it has shifted from fun to comedy, from comedy to farce, and from farce to the fringes of nonsense, a peculiarly British form. Only by categorizing it as nonsense, perhaps, can the work be approached at all. In the works of Edward Lear or, in particular, Lewis Carroll, a delimited world is proposed, which operates like a game with rigid laws which cannot be questioned within the game itself. To accept these rules is to gain freedom. Played by treating the familiar things of the world as counters, the game is emotionless and irreconcilable. (People too are treated as inanimate objects.) The poles between which nonsense functions are those of singularity, the additive tendency, and an all-engulfing sameness of the kind which triumphs at the end of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. Its aim may be to preserve a model of a universe that is never more than the sum of its parts.

It must be significant that so many writers of nonsense—Lear, Carroll, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, T.H. White—felt the need to illustrate their work, and that an untutored style was almost always felt to be most suitable. (Why, when he was a highly sophisticated academic painter, did Lear make drawings with little regard for perspective, with characters who clap their hands behind their backs in a manner that has been described as medieval?) Elizabeth Sewell, who held that nonsense resulted from the dialectic between different parts of the psyche, suggested that because the effect of these pictures is to inhibit half of the mind, though apparently provided to nourish the imagination, they in fact extinguish it by means of detail and precision.7 A parallel argument would be that “imagination” is so subordinated to “fancy” in Campbell that it is only perceptible in the spirited rendering of the nickname marks, admissions of the contingent nature of signs.

The unseating of imagination in his work is linked to the banishment of “expressionism,” still the accepted Modernist stance in his native Scotland. Abstract Expressionists painted the myth of the point of emotional origin. Campbell and other postconceptual painters may be painting the esthetic moment itself, a moment in which stillness and movement are confused, blocky poses become natural and eloquent, distinctions between levels of reality are broken down as art is pushed to its limits, and the artist’s selfhood is put in danger of total eradication as space is folded concertinalike and time collapses altogether. While a Wodehouse denouement is prepared with Aristotelian precision and progressive haste, Campbell’s exists unmotivated, beyond past and future, as a sudden “presence.” The energy released in the recent paintings—in one a man breaks Van Helsing’s neck in order to obtain the charge for a galvanic battery—is pure power. It serves to dramatize the suspension of cause and effect generated by a moment that is totally unforeseen and unforeseeable. “Were a man such as Adam. created in the full vigor of understanding, without experience,” wrote David Hume, thinking of his favorite game of billiards, “he would never be able to infer motion in the second ball from the motion and impulse of the first.”8 Little wonder that Hume is summoned from the grave by the turn of events above his head.

Campbell has proceeded by considering painting synchronically, as an ideal he must strive to emulate. His process of “making mistakes” is a critique of his own version of painting, concentrating on points he considers illogical. The resulting works are the doubles of painting, a “signing” which takes place at an ironic distance from the traditions on which he depends. By putting himself in the position of an Old Master, he is free to isolate painting like a new chemical element and strive to regain its lost innocence. There are other issues—like its relation to the outside world. Perhaps the leg can be read as the intrusion of a chaotic force into a sacrosanct realm. Perhaps it is the ultimate power which will subsume all detail in the architect’s office at Wee Nook, the created and the planned, the quick and the dead. Or perhaps it can act without effect. “God,” wrote St Thomas Aquinas, “is pure act without any potentiality,” a miraculous fulfillment of Hume’s little myth.9 Begin anywhere; there’s no knowing where details will lead. Could the waggling leg really be the hand of God? Or is it just Freddie Threepwood upstairs being silly?

Stuart Morgan is a regular contributor to Artforum.



1. P.G. Wodehouse, Leave it to Psmith, New York: Doran, 1924, p. 326. One problem is that every Wodehouse “reference” in Campbell’s work may turn out to be conflated or misremembered. Cf. the episode when Chimp Twist breaks down Hash Todhunter’s door at Mon Repos, Burberry Road: “Arriving on the threshold he raised his boot and drove it like a battering-ram. The doors of suburban villas are not constructed to stand treatment. . . . And Chimp, though a small man, had a large foot.” (Sam in the Suburbs, New York: Doran, 1925, p 326. English ed. Sam the Sudden, London: Methuen, 1925, pp. 232–33.)

Titles for two later paintings seem to be remembered from the same novel. Through the Ceiling, Through the Floor etc. may refer to Sam’s breaking down the wall between San Rafael and Mon Repos at the end of the book, a deliberate “accident” which makes him rich (op cit., p. 343). Another title, “God’s in His Heaven, All’s Well with the World”; 1984, is a misquotation of “Pippa’s Song” by Robert Browning (“God’s in His Heaven/All’s right with the world”), which Sam recites to his friend Hash when life is trouble-free (op. cit., p. 251).

2. P.G. Wodehouse, Summer Lightning, Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1931, p. 31.

3. Gisela Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, figs. 133–34.

4. Stuart Morgan, “Soup’s On: An Audience with Steven Campbell,” Artscribe no. 48, September–October 1984, p. 31.

5. John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, New York: Pantheon, 1984, p 26.

6. After accepting an invitation to Blandings Castle from Lord Emsworth, who assumes that he is a Canadian poet, Psmith insists on moving into an unoccupied gamekeeper’s cottage in the west wood. some distance away (4-5, R-S on Ionicus’ map “Blandings Castle, Shropshire,” in frontispiece to P.G. Wodehouse, Sunset at Blandings, ed. R. Usborne, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977). "‘What a horrible looking place.’ [Eve] exclaimed. ‘Whatever did you want it for?’

‘Purely as a nook,’ said Psmith, taking out his key ‘You know how a man of sensibility and refinement needs a nook.’" (Leave it to Psmith, New York: Doran, 1924, p. 295)

The name Wee Nook occurs in Joy in the Morning, when Jeeves arranges that Lord Worplesdon, the second husband of Bertie’s aunt Agatha, lends them a “small but compact residence” in the grounds of his home in Steeple Bumpleigh is named Wee Nooke. Bertie calls it “a decentish little shack. . . . A bit Ye Olde. but otherwise all right” (Joy in the Morning, New York: Doubleday, 1946, p. 68) Immediately after his arrival, however, Lord Worplesdon’s young son Edwin, a Boy Scout and “as pestilential a stripling as ever wore khaki shorts,” performs his daily act of kindness by cleaning the chimney. Having put gunpowder up to clear the soot, he sets the whole cottage alight, then throws paraffin on the flames instead of water. Wee Nooke lasts for only one chapter.

7. Elizabeth Sewell, The Field of Nonsense, London: Chatto and Windus, 1952, pp. 111–12.

8. David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature: Book One, ed. G.B.C. McNabb, London: Fontana, 1962, p. 342. Campbell, who claims to know almost nothing about Hume, acquired this knowledge from BBC Open University programs on philosophy. (See D. Cockburn/G. Bourne, Hume: Reason and Experience, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, pp. 44–62, in which the question of the billiard balls is debated at length.)

9. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Westminster: Christian Classics, 1948, vol. 1, Question 3, Article 3, pt. 1, p. 16. Sewell strongly argues the case for a parallelism between nonsense and Scholastic thought.