Bodies of Work: Rebecca Campbell
Since her LA emergence in 2002, Rebecca Campbell (NAP #37) has been crafting sumptuous, painterly scenes that range from the poignantly quotidian to the kaleidoscopically fantastical. The embrace of her paint handling and leaning towards large formats lend heroic, almost legendary proportions to the men, women, and children who inhabit what often appears to be a magically-real version of domestic, middle-class life. But the dazzle of the paint does not distract or disguise – her pictures look in the eye what is often relegated to the nostalgic, the sentimental, and the emotional. In the hands of a lesser artist, images of this sort frequently fall outside the purview of contemporary art. Campbell, however, forges a meditation on autobiography that demands a closer investigation. The depth of her imagery upends and reclaims motifs such as family, children, rainbows, fireworks, lightning bolts, and mushroom clouds with such deftness that their full meaning seem linked to their depiction in paint. - Jason Ramos, Los Angeles Contributor
In her last previous solo exhibition at LA Louver, titled Romancing the Apocalypse, (as well as in the exhibition Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe in New York), images of young feminine beauty are juxtaposed with some of the more poetic expressions of light, heat, and energy the physical world has ever offered. This sets up a knowing, metaphoric riff on the feelings that young feminine beauty can inspire in those inclined to gaze at it – fireworks, explosions, rainbows, lightning bolts – but not without offering glimmers of their power and consequence. Campbell’s Bang series depicts furious, colorful combustions, brought down from the heavens to be frozen at their moment of climax, grouped and hung much like they would hang in the sky. The sister series Boom, shows us the end game of humanity’s fascination with blowing things up, in the evolved form of combustion we all have come to recognize through its distinctive mushroom shape. They are systematically arranged in a single file line, one, after another, after another. Oddly, the clouds in Boom seem eerily serene compared to Bang, yet they are both fairly simple, elegant examples of converting matter to energy, which also serves as an apt metaphor for what Campbell does with paint. These human-derived phenomena are now set against forces of nature, as the intoxication of female beauty and the hopefulness of a rainbow after a storm existed long before Einstein confirmed everything around us contained infinite beauty, bows, booms, bolts, and bangs.
The images in the Beauty, Bow, and Bolt series are crafted with the same energy infused hands that blew up the heavens and the Earth in Boom and Bang. The off-white slabs of paint that describe the head of the cloud in Boom 3 are also the creamy softness of the shoulders and cheeks of the figure in Beauty 6 and 5. Warm flings and runs of color radiating in Bang 1 articulate and define the arcs of Bow 2 like spurting solar flares. The visual language Campbell takes word-by-word in these smaller works are utilized to great effect in the two large scale works in the LA Louver exhibition, Epidemic and Romancing the Apocalypse. Leaning into a more surreal visual world than her previous works, Campbell’s trademark large format pictures here offer stoically dazed figures accessorized with symbols and settings of celebration and doom. Described in the exhibition press release as “complex psychological drama and extremes of sensory experience”, the sumptuous feasts of furious paint in these works appear ready to dissolve away like half-remembered dreams upon waking, complete with inexplicable objects, events and actions.
Currently in Campbell’s LA studio, a new exploration is being crafted, one that focuses more tightly on her own family history as a vehicle for her themes. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, under the beliefs and practices of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Campbell’s current work traces her Mormon heritage to potato farming Idahoans. In this discovery Campbell found overlap with the work of another influential artist who dealt with emotion, expression, and feeling in unapologetic fashion: Van Gogh. It is a logical kinship; much of modern paintings’ visual language concerning Campbell’s general interests of emotion, sentiment, and feeling, were first laid down by Van Gogh, further developed by the Fauves, refined by the German Expressionists, and then, one could argue, eventually submerged by the formal concerns of the Abstract Expressionists. Campbell brings the figure back up from the depths to render more of her large-scale, allegorical scenes: A larger-than-life male figure bends over, aligning with top and right edges of the painting, mid-way through the primal action of digging a hole in the ground. In another, a woman’s body doubles as a prone, human landscape, seemingly bound and trapped in a picturesque holiday scene that feels to be melting from the heat of the “digging man” painting next to it. Smaller monotone works in progress capture the vernacular of family snapshots – two women embrace forming a single, painted figure of all arms and laughter; a man who appears to be in uniform smiles and poses before he is overtaken by the blue-white background that already eats at the edges of his form; two young girls against a pink-grey background, whether by family or something deeper declare themselves sisters by virtue of their shared pose. In all of them, the poses and photo-based composition tell us these people lived, were real; the color palette and dress tell us those lives and that reality will forever be out of the full reach of the present. All of these in-progress scenes, as well as additional sculptural components, will add up to The Potato Eaters, the working title of this current body of work.
An underlying theme of hard work as a road to salvation/redemption/enlightenment is not an abstract concept for Campbell. Admitting that, “if I don’t have the opportunity to spend a lot of hours in the studio my body gets a bit out of tune and the paintings suffer”, Campbell nonetheless channels themes and subjects from her roles as a mother, educator, and more, directly into the work. An upfront attitude about artists’ extra-studio activity, from the personal to the political, finds relevance as a revealing context for Campbell’s painting. Even with being closer to the top in the gallery game than most artists, she still deals with issues systemic to the art world. “Being an artist is not a practical thing to do from any perspective especially a financial one. Being a female artist is unsurprisingly even less so.” Despite this, the work of the resolutely feminist Campbell shows no compromise to the shifting fashions of the art world as it’s frequently marketed to us. All the in-progress work of The Potato Eaters builds upon this, and proves that any perceived minority status of sincerity, sentiment, and feeling as themes in contemporary art can be dealt with through an uncompromising faithfulness to the work required to articulate those themes.
Jason Ramos is an artist, curator, and writer based in Los Angeles. He earned an MFA in painting from Cal State Fullerton in 2007. He is the current director of RAID Projects and former assistant curator of theTorrance Art Museum. His art work has been included in numerous exhibitions in Los Angeles and beyond.