A Glasgow dandy
Liz Shannon finds out about a posthumous exhibition of new work by Steven Campbell, one of Glasgow’s most influential artists
In August of last year, one of Scotland’s most renowned contemporary painters died unexpectedly. Steven Campbell’s sadly premature death at the age of 54, caused by a ruptured appendix, was all the more untimely as he was in the midst of preparing for an exhibition of new work at Glasgow School of Art.
A year on, and these hitherto unseen works are about to go on show at Glasgow Print Studio and the GSA’s Mackintosh Gallery under the title Wretched Stars, Insatiable Heaven. John Mackechnie, director of the Glasgow Print Studio, the site of Campbell’s last major exhibition, explains that GSA will exhibit seven of the new paintings, while his gallery will show four. ‘We will also be exhibiting all of the prints that Steven made in Scotland – they’re mostly woodcuts, apart from one etching,’ he says. ‘I’ve always loved his work.’
After Campbell’s death, Mackechnie helped the artist’s family with the painful task of clearing his studio. One painting in particular caught his attention. ‘There was a self-portrait in among the paintings that Steven had previously exhibited up north and in the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh,’ says the director, who has written a short essay about Campbell for the exhibition catalogue, which also includes a longer piece about the new paintings by Neil Mulholland. ‘The painting included the yellow police tape motif that appears in some of his other works. It was strange – the tape read “death in progress”.’
Born in Glasgow, Campbell studied at the GSA after working in the local steelworks. After graduating in 1982, he won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship and moved to New York with his wife. He achieved an international profile, his successes including an exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In 1986, he returned to Scotland where he continued to paint and to exert an influence on the national art scene. 2005’s Campbell’s Soup exhibition underlined his importance to Scottish art and his work continues to inspire younger artists such as Lucy McKenzie.
An artist who loved Romanticism and the concept of the ‘dandy’, Campbell had an inimitable way of expression. The narratives articulated by Campbell’s works were inspired by a complex mix of sources, with ideas culled from film, literature, real-life events and the history of art. Mackechnie particularly notes Campbell’s use of the ‘Fantômas’ character in his paintings, inspired by the anarchic anti-hero of early 20th century French pulp detective fiction. It comes as no surprise that Campbell’s imagination was noted at art school, where he won the Bram Stoker Gold Medal for having produced the most imaginative work of the year.
The exhibition’s title, taken from the opera L’Orfeo by Monteverdi, was chosen by Campbell and seems similarly prescient and fitting. This posthumous exhibition will help to promote Campbell’s 25 years of work, celebrate his already cemented status and his legacy as an important, and much missed, contemporary Scottish painter.
Mackintosh Gallery, Glasgow School of Art, Sat 16 Aug-Sat 11 Oct; Glasgow Print Studio, Sat 16 Aug-Sun 28 Sep.