A dynamic cluster of young artists emerged from the Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s, bringing a sense of renewed confidence and ambition to the visual art scene in this country. Steven Campbell was one of the most successful painters among this group, and his complex, large-scale figurative canvases quickly gained attention and critical acclaim at home and abroad, contributing to a wider international recognition for recent Scottish art. Campbell was born in Glasgow and after leaving school he worked as a maintenance engineer at a steelworks before enrolling at the city’s School of Art in 1978. Initially he was involved in performance art before he took up painting in 1981, and the following year he won a Fulbright Scholarship to New York where he remained until his return to Scotland in 1986. His paintings derive their inspiration from an eclectic array of sources in art, literature, science or philosophy, all recast and jumbled into surreal and deliberately confusing narratives.
The settings often seem theatrical, with hapless, mock-heroic characters stumbling their way through unreal landscapes and subject to various absurd adventures. Although his paintings abound with signs, gestures and recognisable symbols, their meaning is frequently undermined and disrupted in an Alice-in-Wonderland world that exudes an underlying sense of menace and uncertainty. The artist himself appears in various guises in his pictures. Sandy Moffat, his teacher at the Glasgow School of Art, remembered Campbell as someone ‘consumed by existential doubt’, and described his paintings as ‘spaces or theatres of the mind where the viewer would meet and experience bizarre utopias and dystopias, and which created the feeling that the artist’s own life and personality were only screened from us by the thinnest of veils’.
In this picture from 1986, a figure in a smart suit and boots is shown entangled with Saint Christopher and the infant Christ. The latter is bathed in a visionary light and, with his eyes fixed upwards towards the heavens, he steps forward unheedingly into a river. Whatever drama is unfolding here, we sense that it must end badly. Saint Christopher, by tradition the protector of travellers who had safely conveyed Christ across a dangerous river, seems powerless to intervene. The procession of sheep making their way towards the Union Jack flag in the distance adds another layer of ambiguity and perhaps is an oblique reference to the Falklands War of 1982.
The picture’s title is based on a line from an English translation of the preface to Max Ernst’s first collage novel, La Femme 100 Têtes, published in 1929; Campbell might have seen the catalogue of an exhibition of Ernst’s books held in New York in 1986, the same year as he made this picture. The imagery of Ernst’s collages in which disparate elements are brought together to create convincing yet nonsensical illustrations would have appealed to Campbell. Like Ernst and the Surrealists, he offers us a form of visual poetry in which mystery and ambiguity mirror our experience of life, gently mocking any pretension of understanding and certainty.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.