New York

Steven Campbell

Barbara Toll Gallery and John Weber Gallery

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,/Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!” goes Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” and the burr in the rhythm and roll of these words has, without map or lexicon, found its way into the big, stumpy, juicy, and very funny paintings of Steven Campbell. Maps, however, have played a large part in Campbell’s farcical vision of his fellow Scots and, more generally, their fellow British islanders of the lumpen classes, ever planning out expeditions into Nature with befuddlement and far too much equipment. In The Man Who Climbs Maps, 1983, a youngish camper stands near a shack, a teeny tent, and a toppled directional marker; he is all prepared, but physically twisted and perceptually overwhelmed by the map he holds, the sole object of his energies and attention. In Campbell’s detailed scenes campers’ tents are always wee, figures always clubby, and nature always brute but endearingly, anthropomorphically grumpy, as though its patience has been taxed. In Man Amazed at the Height He Is Up, 1983, the map at last has been transcended, to the evident dismay of the party concerned. These two paintings were exhibited separately last year, and in most of the 20 or so shown this time there is an overgrown, ginger-haired scout of similar visage, and every reason to believe that Campbell is his own pictorial protagonist.

What do you do if you are hiking from Oxford to Salisbury, and the signpost has fallen down or broken? In two dilemma paintings that pose this riddle, the implied solution is that you point one arrow toward where you came from and proceed in the opposite direction. There is a tinge of Samuel Beckett in these absurdities, only Campbell isn’t gloomy. School ties, father-and-son loyalties, gardening, snakebites on the trail, and scientist sleuths such as Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing all figure in these painted conundrums. And ties go awry and take precedence over fauna, patricide is threatened, paralysis sets in, shoes are lost, and campers are picked off by falcons, hurdies aloft, as the conundrums lurch towards their resolutions in the area, though not quite on the jugular, of black comedy.

Campbell probably hates artiness. Before attending the Glasgow Art School he worked for several years as a “steel works maintenance engineer” (does this mean janitor?), and while this bit of data may have little to do with anything, it could be used to support the observation that some sort of class clash is being borne out in these paintings. The classes involved are not so much economically as culturally defined—middle class proper vs. middle class indefinite, with Campbell, our pictorial signpost, cataclysmically and riotously unaligned. The weapons used are strictly formal, which might seem surprising what with all the cluttered narratives and iconology. But Campbell’s chunky figures, like Sandro Chia’s or Balthus’, point to Picasso’s years in Avignon, to improvisational classicism, and their various troubles with gravity (thermodynamic and dramatic) make one think of Chagall and the eccentricities of a surrealism without theory. The punch of life, though, not of art history, rattles through Campbell’s paintings. They are ballads and ditties, not odes, and in paint-handling as well as theme he stays staunchly in the vulgate.

The quality of illustration in these paintings is such that anything like connoisseurship cannot apply. No one painting is really technically or harmoniously better than any other, and one’s choice of “favorites” is apt to depend on subject matter, not execution. Yet in texture and color, they are neither unsophisticated nor unpainterly. Campbell has translated the populism of the broadside into an art that hangs, and a sonsie thing it is.

Lisa Liebmann