New York

Graham Campbell

CDS Gallery

There are two schools of thought about the relationship between abstraction—the visual in its supposedly purest form—and the literary. From one point of view, abstraction is the highest stage of visual evolution, and the literary is an outgrown appendage to it, like the vestige of a tail at the base of the human spine. According to the other, abstraction is a kind of visual poetry, a term not used metaphorically but rather to indicate that, while its “message” is often obscure and untranslatable into ordinary language, abstraction is in fact a language, obscure because of its cabalistic nature.

In Graham Campbell's art, the abstract is simultaneously substance and symbol of ultimate reality. Campbell argues, as it were, that visual abstraction gives us a literal sense of ultimate reality in a way that literature can never do, however hard it tries to be abstract or pure, for it is invariably tainted with contingent, everyday language and its implication of mundane reality. At the same time, abstraction is also only a language; whatever it might be in itself, it is, like any language, no more than an awkward symbol or intimating communication of reality.

“Ultimate reality,” W. B. Yeats wrote in A Vision (1938), is “neither one nor many, concord nor discord.” Campbell's paintings and drawings are derived from Yeats' use of the cabalistic symbol of the gyre, or spiral, to articulate the “antinomies in human experience” through which ultimate reality becomes intelligible. Thus, in his painting The Gyres, 1986, and the other works shown here, all from 1986 and ‘87, Campbell shows us the primary and the antithetical gyres, as Yeats called them, and their convergence “at the bottom of the grave where contraries are equally true” (in William Blake's words, quoted by Yeats). Campbell tends to depict the gyres as a convergence of opposites, or as their unity. In Yeats’ book there is a diagram of the interpenetrating gyres—one dark, the other light—which Campbell seems to have used as his explicit source. Campbell sets the gyres in organic motion, adding the dramatic spin proper to each one and the energy implicit in their intimacy. His great variety of textures conveys the motion and intensity of these whirling forms. In nearly all of these works, the gyres are symbolically united by a vertical bar, geometric and static where the gyres are organic and dynamic, flat and ideal where the gyres are round and real.

Campbell is at his best when he is most ingeniously dramatic, as in the painting Sin Clair, 1986, in which the vertical element emerges as a shadow from a single self-conflicted gyre, like (to borrow Yeats' words) the bleak “emanation” of the gyre's “passion.” This dynamic is rendered with special intensity in Campbell's drawings, seven of which were included in this show. The portentous monumentality of the gyres is modified by a softer, more sensitive touch in the drawings than in the paintings. The gyres of the drawings have the ghostly quality of an introjected persona. With their strange grace, Campbell's gyres contribute importantly to the current attempt to regenerate abstraction after its fall from visionary grace and complexity, its degeneration into a technical exercise.

Donald Kuspit