Jeffery Camp

The first thing I felt as I began to take in Jeffery Camp’s paintings was a sense of heady, happy displacement. Here was something unexpected, something that blithely upended my categories for receiving and “placing” contemporary art. Part of that reaction has to do with context, of which we critics are not supposed to take much notice but which can hardly help but condition our expectations. In the case of Browse & Darby—a venerable venue that, as Camp, himself remarks in the exhibition catalogue, “will always be thought of as Euan Uglow’s gallery”—those expectations are of something solid and measured like Uglow’s paintings but rather distant from the concerns of most artists under fifty—in other words, something resembling a figurative tradition fallen into respectable dowdiness. So the first source of surprise was that these oddly-shaped little pastoral scenes were neither dowdy nor particularly respectable, but rather fresh and loose, informed by an irreverent eye for the distinctions between penetrating observation and glamorizing cliché.

So had some young whippersnapper besotted with Martin Maloney and Elizabeth Peyton infiltrated this bastion of pictorial sobriety? Not at all, I learned when I inquired at the desk about the artist’s identity; Jeffery Camp has been showing at the gallery for years, “and he’s a member of the Royal Academy!” Well, there must be some mistake: The only academy Camp belongs in is the Arcadia in which Karen Kilimnik and Janice Biala frolic shamelessly with Filippo de Pisis, Sir William Nicholson, and Robert Greene—that is to say, an Elysium of idiosyncratic painterliness in which the fluidity and dash of a paintbrush’s mercurial movements convey, above all, vision’s avid excursions through a world whose every surface is so seductive the eye cannot remain fixed on any one in particular. This is an art of distraction, not, like Uglow’s, of concentration. Even the simple subject of a typically small painting—for instance, Camp’s portrait of a woman in blue gathering in her arms a whippet that’s really too big for her to hold—seems to have been painted while the canvas was constantly rotating on the wall. The painting’s near-oval polygonal shape helps create this effect, but so does the way its overall blue tonality seems to rush in from each of the many edges to gather and effloresce in the figure at the center. More typical, perhaps, are paintings not dominated by any one figure, in which the scene itself seems an unstable concatenation of fragmentary views. The multitude of paintings scattered across the walls only replicates at the level of installation the visual appetite that animates each picture. Likewise, the slippage I sensed between the paintings and their context reiterates the shifting of viewpoints that is essential to Camp’s multiperspectival compositional method.

How wrong I was to have imagined Camp to be a young painter. The relaxed way he handles pictorial complexity can only have been underwritten by some experience. Like the Impressionists, Camp is a painter of leisure, finding most of his scenes in London’s parks or nearby beaches. But he sidesteps the Irnpressionists’ claim to quasi-scientific objectivity, nonchalantly courting the illusion that painting is merely his Sunday pastime. In fact, that’s exactly where the surprisingly of-the-moment feeling of these paintings emerges—in a contemporary form of art-that-hides-art that consists of breaking down one’s own sophistication into confoundingly ingenuous little observations.

Barry Schwabsky