Sydney Morning Herald Column

Cressida Campbell

Published October 11, 2022
Cressida Campbell, 'Bedroom nocturne' (2017)

If there were ever an exhibition to silence the doubters and vanquish the sceptics, this is it. Director Nick Mitzevich says there were some at the National Gallery of Australia who couldn’t understand why he wanted to do a Cressida Campbell show. Surely, she’s just a still life artist, a maker of pretty pictures for the lounge room… Suddenly, it’s a case of: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Cressida Campbell.. one out four grumpy self-portraits

Before I proceed, I must confess I’ve contributed an essay to the catalogue and have been friends with the artist for over 30 years. However, this would not be the case if I didn’t think Campbell was an exceptional talent, so no apologies or excuses.

There are more than 140 items in this survey, which will be the NGA’s major drawcard of the summer. Although an Australian artist might not be expected to pull the crowds, one can confidently predict this show will be a monster. It’s hard to imagine anyone not responding positively to Campbell’s inventiveness, to her skill with colour and composition, and to the truly staggering commitment of time and energy that has gone into these works. The word-of-mouth factor will play a crucial role in drawing audiences.

The show doesn’t proceed chronologically but has been divided into six themes: still life, interiors, plants, studio, bushland, and water views. This doesn’t quite take account of four striking self-portraits, in which we see four versions of a sullen expression and an unruly mane of red hair; a portrait of the artist’s late husband, Peter Crayford; and a wall of juvenilia that reveals a precocious pre-pubescent imagination. It’s clear there is no way Campbell can be stereotyped.

Some may be surprised by Campbell’s willingness to work on a large scale, in pieces such as From the balcony (1995), or the panorama, West of Observatory Hill (1989). Because of the painstaking nature of her methods, every large work would have taken months of intensive labour. As she has grown older even the smaller pictures take longer and longer, as she keeps setting herself more exacting pictorial challenges.

Cressida Campbell, ‘Nasturiums’ (2002)

“Cressida Campbell,” writes curator, Sarina Noorduis-Fairfax, “reminds us that there is much beauty and solace to be found in the everyday.” That’s perfectly true, but it’s a shame we need reminding. Campbell is painting the same things artists have painted from earliest antiquity to the modernist era. Still life, landcapes, interiors, the occasional portrait – this describes much of the work made by artists from Zeuxis to Matisse. It was only with the rise of abstraction in the 1950s that such subjects took on a more conservative complexion. At present we are going through a depressing phase when contemporary art needs to flaunt its political convictions or risk being deemed irrelevant.

Campbell (b.1960) is not the least bit concerned with what’s deemed important by the arbiters of institutional taste. She has always pursued her own course, being quite incapable of doing anything else. During her early years she lived on the dole while perfecting an idiosyncratic technique whereby she draws then carves a design onto a piece of plywood, paints it with many layers of watercolour, sprays the picture with water and takes a single impression. The outcome is a painted block and its mirror image, a coloured print.

Cressida Campbell, ‘Kitchen utensils’ (1993)

Campbell acquired a following among private collectors while still in her late twenties. By the time she began to show with Rex Irwin in 1989, and later with Philip Bacon in 1994, she had a steady market for everything she produced. Virtually the only works acquired by public galleries would be those gifted by Margaret Olley, a long-term friend and mentor.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of pictures in this exhibition have been borrowed from private collections. As is so often the case, the museums were late to the party, as they were with William Robinson, and continue to be with other artists, notably Peter Godwin, whose work has been collected by Campbell herself. In the meantime, they have acquired truckloads of fashionable junk.

Cressida Campbell, Margaret Olley’s lounge room without the ash trays

The qualities that made Campbell a favourite with private collectors are exactly those that previously kept the museums at bay. She makes work drawn from observation, often from her own domestic environment. Her pictures are meant to appeal to the eye, to intrigue and delight the viewer, not to confront or disturb. She is a figurative painter, not because she dislikes abstract art, but because the visible world provides an endless supply of subjects. Like all good artists she hardly recognises any distinction between abstract and figurative.

If her pictures of everyday objects are on a different plane to many of her peers, it’s her expertise in composition that makes the difference. As with the ukiyo-e printmakers, with whom she is compared in this show, Campbell understands that even the simplest motif becomes more dynamic if shown as part of an obstructed view or from an unusual angle. Each composition is the fruit of an exhaustive thought process. She will continue to make changes to a design as she works on it and may even take a saw and cut a sliver off the completed work. On at least one occasion she made the radical decision to divide a picture into two, the thinner part becoming Glass carafe with maidenhair and pink stem (2016-17), the larger, Maidenhair and carafe (2016). The works are reunited in this show as a diptych.

Cressida Campbell, ‘After lunch’ (2002)

In recent years she has begun experimenting with circular paintings, or tondi, as they were known in the Renaissance. One of the chief attractions seems to be the way vertical and horizontal lines within these works take on a new emphasis when suddenly truncated by the edge of a circle. In Book, chair and black bamboo (2021), the eye is stretched between a glimpse of bamboo on one side of the circle, and part of a black, slimline chair on the other. The wall in between is a blank space, but it feels like a living thing.

The thematic arrangement allows viewers to sample the development of Campbell’s work in every room. What they will find is a gradual evolution from flat, brightly coloured images such as Pyrmont (1984), to the incredible subtlety of an image such as Night interior (2017). In the former the colours are poster-like, with a vivid view of rooftops framed by dark green French doors. The virtuoso touch is a red-and-whte striped towel hanging on the door handle.

Cressida Campbell, ‘Otto on the Stairs’ (2016-17)

Night interior is painted in subdued colours, using light, shadows, and reflections to great effect. The mood is introspective and melancholic. It’s the difference between day and night, between a window to be looked through and one that is looked at, but also between a young person with her whole life ahead of her and an older one who has known her share of pain, disappointment and loss.

The artist’s focus on things close to home, and the vital relationship between her activities as a creator and a collector of beautiful objects, has encouraged an unusually intimate form of exhibition. Those who spend time with the work and pore over the catalogue will begin to feel they know Campbell personally. They will learn about her childhood, her family, her marriages, her thoughts on art and interior design. They will become familiar with her lounge room, her garden, her hallway, and the rumpled sheets on her bed. They will begin to see the world through Campbell’s eyes and understand how, through visual intelligence, an acute sensibility, and a particular quality of attention, the mundane may be routinely transformed into the magical.


Cressida Campbell

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra,

24 September, 2022 – 19 February, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October, 2022