Cressida Campbell would be the first to admit that most artists’ lives are uneventful. Allowing for those famous few who lopped off an ear or succumbed to Bohemian dissipation, there is little more to it than the daily grind of work in the studio, the repeated struggle for inspiration and motivation. This is Campbell’s lot, although it seems that every time she and her film critic husband, Peter Crayford, step outside their orderly existence, cataclysms follow.
Friends hardly dare ask: “How was the holiday?” without bracing themselves for some new disaster. Recent years have produced tales of the plummeting airplane in Indonesia, the riot in India, and the sinister, protracted cab ride in London. Even the processes of moving house and renovating – traumatic enough by anyone’s standards – became a story of Tolstoyan proportions scripted by Edgar Allan Poe. It is, perhaps, divine retribution for the utterly serene and simplistic world depicted in Campbell’s coloured woodblock prints. Life may be anxious or frustrating, but the art remains anchored in a delicate play or shapes and colours. Her usual subjects are domestic interiors and still life, landscape and gardens. No one, not party to Campbell’s hair-raising holiday stories, would see anything but a world of calm reflection.
If success may be measured in terms of the percentage of works sold, not the quantity, Campbell is one of Australia’s most successful artists. Her exhibitions nowadays come close to selling out before opening night – a feat more readily associated with her long-time friend and supporter, Margaret Olley. Yet she is not one of those artists who see popularity as an invitation to crank up her output. Campbell says she only feels comfortable with her own idiosyncratic and labour-intensive methods. Most artists would see print-making as a means of making their work accessible to a wider audience, but all Campbell’s prints are made in editions of one.
She begins with a sheet of plywood, on which a design is carefully drawn. She believes “If the drawing is wrong, then everything goes wrong,” so this part of the process absorbs a great deal of time and concentration. Next, she carves out each line with a small engraving tool, and uses small brushes to apply watercolours to the separate segments. After several coats of paint, she freshens up the image with a spray of water and takes a single impression. The end result is one coloured block, and one print – its mirror image. To see blocks and prints side-by-side, is a lesson in aesthetics: some compositions just seem to look better, to look ‘right’, when forms are clustered on either the left or right-hand side. Campbell disputes this idea. “If something’s going to work,” she says, “it should also work in reverse.” She accepts though, that viewers will always make up their own minds.
So thoroughly does she accept this fact, that she has an absolute dread of the pretentious catalogue statements, the longwinded essays and poetique titles that are an obligatory addition to most contemporary art exhibitions. If anything, she might be accused of being too literal. When I ask the title of a new print featuring a still life arrangement of three bowls, she answers: “Bowls”. A print showing lemons in a Chinese bowl is called “Lemons in a Chinese Bowl”; one of an apple is called “Apple”, and so on. To reviewers accustomed to recycle whatever they find in the catalogue statement, such literalness is a problem. They might have to actually look at the works.
If they do, they will discover an artist dedicated to age-old problems of composition. For Campbell, the subject is secondary – what really matters are “the subtleties of design and pattern”. She admits this leads to a degree of stylization, and a preference for non-naturalistic colours. Shadows, for instance, are included or omitted at will, depending on whether they contribute to the dynamism of the composition. Her methods are surprisingly close to those of abstract artists, but the end result is always a harmonious, finely-crafted slice of life. There is no deep space in Campbell’s prints, but variations of tone and texture are generated by that spray of water before the print is pulled. These faintly mottled surfaces provide the “subtleties” she prizes so highly.
Privacy is important to Campbell, perhaps because her childhood was submitted to an unusual degree of public scrutiny. Her father, Ross Campbell (1911-82), was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, the Bulletin and the Australian Woman’s Weekly, who became famous for his chronicles of family life. In Campbell’s stories of “Oxalis Cottage”, his children were given nicknames: Sally was Theodora, Patrick became Lancelot, Sonny (christened Laura) was Little Nell, and Cressida, the youngest, was Pip. Ruth, the mother of the brood, was known as “my wife”. It is a formula that has been tried many times since, but rarely carried off with the aplomb of Campbell, who was no average journo, but a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford in the days of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkein.
Nowadays, Sally is a designer for films and commercials; Patrick a scientist, and Sonny, who held onto the nickname of Little Nell, is in show business. She made her reputation playing “Columbia” in the original Rocky Horror Show, and went on to run a night-club in New York. Now known simply as “Nell” – “because no longer little,” according to her younger sister – she has just started in Nine, a Broadway musical starring Antonio Banderas.
Cressida was barely into puberty by the time her father stopped writing his popular columns, so they made little difference to her relations with friends and teachers. But it is easy to forget the extraordinary popularity of Ross Campbell’s prose, and the reputation he enjoyed as one of Australia’s leading humorists. Oxalis Cottage occupied a prominent location in the popular cultural landscape, in a way that is hard to imagine now that the electronic media has asserted its dominance over print. Think of Ramsay St. in Neighbours, but with a much better script.
Campbell recalls that her father did not conform to the boozy, garrulous image that journalists enjoyed in those days. Writing as many as four pieces a week, he preferred to stay away from the excesses of social life – and in this regard she has followed her dad. She would prefer to stay at home and work in the studio, rather than attend the never-ending round of openings, cocktail and dinner parties that animates the Sydney art world. She does, of course, go to her fair share of these events – but it is often out of a sense of obligation rather than pleasure. In this she is also out-of-step with an art scene that puts a premium on networking instead of art-making. The keynote story is that of the Melbourne-based artist who once explained that she employed an assistant to do her paintings because all of her own time was spent on her career.
From the very beginning of her career Campbell knew she would never fit into the fashionable circles of the avant-garde. After finishing high school she attended Sydney College of the Arts for only three days before realizing that the abiding emphasis on conceptual art would take her nowhere fast. She went on to study at the National Art School – more modestly known as East Sydney Tech in those days. It was there she hit upon her unique print-making technique, but would shelve the idea for a few years while she exhibited paintings at Clive Evatt’s Hogarth Gallery.
By 1983 she had begun making prints again, and was showing at the old Stephen Mori Gallery in Leichhardt, in Sydney’s inner-west. In the early 1980s, the Mori Gallery was arguably the city’s liveliest commercial venue, with a wild and eclectic mix of artists who have since sunk into invisibility or gone on to hit the heights – usually with other dealers. Campbell was one of the Mori Gallery’s most popular exhibitors – and most reliable sellers – but as the dealers’ taste became more rarefied, her no-frills approach was increasingly at odds with the direction Stephen Mori and his partners were taking. She left, amid the usual recriminations and financial disputes, and joined the stable of Rex Irwin, where she has remained happily ever after. She has also begun to exhibit regularly with Philip Bacon in Brisbane, who has used his associations with the expatriate dealer, Angela Nevill, to arrange exhibitions in London with Nevill Keating Pictures of St. James.
It is reassuring for Campbell that her work is demand, with each exhibition eagerly awaited by serial collectors. But none of this has forced any alteration in her slow, painstaking working methods or precipitated any aesthetic crisis.
Does she ever feel the need to change her reliable style, to pursue some new approach?
– “No, not really.”
Has she ever tried to analyse the reasons her prints are so popular?
– “I think it’s got something to do with the colour…” she admits grudgingly.
Are there any insights she would like to share with readers?
“The work is a bit autobiographical,” she says, “but so is everyone’s…”
Neither is it much use asking Campbell’s friends and admirers about her work. The answers are warm and heartfelt, but blandly impressionistic. “I really like them,” is the most common assessment.
This might sound disturbing, were it not for the fact that those artists who can speak for hours about their own work, and more specifically, about what it means – invariably make art of transcendental shallowness. By comparison, Campbell, who is only ever lost for words when talking about her work, seems like the keeper of some extraordinary secret. It is, quite simply, the secret of individual creativity: that strange mixture of inner compulsion, therapy, and free play of the imagination that brings a work of art into the world. It may entail a lot of drudgery, but Campbell knows that the finished work should look “easy, effortless, not laboured-over.” She knows that when something doesn’t work – perhaps for ineffable, indefinable reasons – “you have to murder your darlings”, and start all over again.
To viewers, Campbell portrays a recognisable world: orderly landscapes and street scenes, domestic interiors and still life. What lifts her work beyond the plane of everyday observation are the transformations she enacts with colour, texture and composition. Although her pictures look naturalistic, they are expertly-crafted decorations that have more in common with Japanese Ukiyo-E prints than with Western forms of realism. It is no insult to use the word “decoration”, which often assumes a pejorative connotation in the language of contemporary art, because she is a decorator in the same manner as Matisse or Bonnard. When Matisse said that the painter of the future would be a decorator such as the world has never known, he was not being a prophet of doom. According to Gloria Groom, in the catalogue of the National Gallery of Australia’s recent Bonnard exhibition, the French ideal of décoration “denoted noble, graceful, expansive treatment of mythological or historical subjects on a large scale, featuring pleasing colours, materials and compositions that would enhance rather than dominate a room.”
This is a far cry from our current understanding, in which an artwork might be denounced for being “merely decorative”, as though it shunned all associations with mythology and history. By Bonnard’s standards, Campbell would be considered an intimist, rather than a decorator – an artist devoted to the data of everyday life, not the grand classical themes. But such a distinction no longer applies to contemporary art: an arena in which the grandest themes are allied with the blandest execution. In bringing us back to simple things, Campbell is exploring a decorative art for our times – an art that avoids the overheated demand for meanings and messages as surely as the most austere piece of Minimalist sculpture. The vital difference is that her prints almost radiate with the pleasure of their own making. It is a quality that alerts the viewer to the complementary pleasures of looking – those necessary, timeless pleasures that our television sets are currently helping us to forget.
Profile published for The Australian Financial Review, Colour Magazine, April 2003
Cressida Campbell exhibiting with Rex Irwin Art Dealer, Sydney, (29 April to 24 May); and Nevill Keating Pictures, London (2-18 July).