In 1982, in his final year at Glasgow School of Art, Steven Campbell received the Bram Stoker Gold Medal, awarded annually for ‘best imaginative work […] in any branch of effort in the School of the year’. Nobody can quite remember why the Irish author of Dracula (1897) gifted the School the prize in 1903, but there have surely been few more fitting recipients than the po-mo gothic canvases of Campbell. His 20 paintings and collages at Marlborough – made between 1983 and 2007, the year of the artist’s untimely death – are dense with iconoclastic symbolism and delicious, noir-ish strangeness.
Campbell’s own tale is more picaresque than gothic horror. He entered Glasgow as a mature student, having been an engineer at the Clydebridge steelworks. On graduating, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute and set off for New York. He looked the part even then: flowing sandy hair, beard, a certain sartorial flair. Campbell arrived in a city still in thrall to ‘bad painting’ – a vernacular whose puckish jumble of references and registers echoes through his own; he was quickly championed by significant voices, had work in major exhibitions and was collected by important institutions. He surprised everyone by returning to Glasgow in 1987 but, in the decade that followed, his work fell out of fashion as painting ceded to the hyperbolic conceptualism of the yBas.
At the time of his death, Campbell was working on a series called ‘Fantômas’ (2006–07), after the gentleman arch-villain in Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s early-20th-century French crime fiction. Three of these canvases are included at Marlborough. They attest to the consistency of Campbell’s epic imagination: the vacant-eyed, elegantly attired young men of 1984’s Two Men Gesturing in the Landscape, Each with the Chin of Joan Sutherland – the oldest work here – could be a pair of Fantômas’s unwitting victims, wandering, moonstruck, to their doom across a misty moor. (I love the Kafka-esque matter-of-factness of Campbell’s titles – these gents do bear an uncanny resemblance to La Stupenda. There is horror in these works, but also humour.)
Campbell’s protagonists are nocturnal animals, for the most part. In His Insides Became his Outsides as the Caravan Game Became Erratic (2001) a menacing young man in a bright red jumper is poised to spring, trapeze artist-like, from a tree onto the roof of a blue caravan. Spidery, elongated fingers stretch out from a trapdoor in the roof and heavy, drugged eyes look up. Another acrobatic figure, bent backwards almost double, regards the scene. Which is the jailer here? Who is predator and who is prey? The field beneath is a patchwork of bodies: pink smudges of fleshy female form, less sharp and worked than the male figures, overpainted with the weeds and wildflowers of a pre-Raphaelite landscape or the millefleur background in a medieval tapestry. Above, the gloaming sky is murky with Campbell’s trademark Dickensian fug. Is this a crime scene or a bad dream?
There are rabbit holes into Wonderland everywhere in these paintings: the caravan roof, the painting-within-a-painting in Collagist in the Drama – Mort de Pierrot (1988), hands popping through the bookshelves (marked ‘Travel-logues’) in one of the ‘Fantômas’ works. In an untitled work from 2006, an elegantly besuited man with round spectacles and Hitler moustache pulls back a curtain to jump onto a flat plane, lurid with staring paisley prints. If there is a sense in which all of Campbell’s dapper protagonists are stand-ins for the artist himself, this figure resembles him most closely. (The allusion to Hitler is a riddle, like much in these Sphinx-y works, that perhaps doesn’t need solving.) Where he was so keen to get to – or to escape from – we can now only speculate, but this show is an exultant reminder of the pleasures of the road less travelled.
Main image: Steven Campbell, Two Men gesturing in the landscape each with the Chin of Joan Sutherland (detail), 1984, 2.9 x 2.9 m. Courtesy: © The Estate of Steven Campbell and Marlborough Fine Art, London, UK