Studio Visit: Rebecca Campbell, The Subjective Lens of Perception
By Gary Brewer
“Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words and images, is already a victory, already a revolt.”
Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
“Art is two things: a search for a road and a search for freedom.”
Paintings ability to convey hidden information, coded information that reveals hidden narratives is one of the many components to this brilliant painters richly layered investigations of memory, history and interpretation. What better medium than painting to explore these ideas. Painting whose intrinsic complexity embeds layers of memory and meaning into matter, meaning that changes over time with the ebb and flow of social, political and religious values; changes that affect the subjective lens of perception.
Rebecca Campbell explains, “The millions of choices a painter makes, the millions of paintings within a painting that we as the makers see, these add layers of content that are hidden but that affect the way one interprets the work.” These myriad choices contain information both intentional and unintentional that are communicated through the body the hand and the eyes; a somatic conveyance of subjective and subconscious elements that captures the spirit of the individual maker and the spirit of their times.
When I asked about the scope of her work, Rebecca responded,” We are born on this earth, in this body and given this incredible gift of consciousness, a gift that allows us to imagine infinity and to create a mathematical equation that describes infinity and yet we are destined to die. We are born into a body that will deteriorate and disappear. It is this fundamental contradiction, this tragedy that everything ripples out from. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, the ripple radiates outwards and all of the contradictions are contained in this elemental betrayal. All great art contains this contradiction the joy of consciousness and the tragedy that we are all destined to die.”
Women loom large in her work, issues of gender inequality and invisibility, of her personal history coming from a conservative Mormon family whose patriarchal dogma give men a superior status to women. These concerns are a part of the labyrinth of the human condition that Rebecca addresses in her paintings. She establishes a theme as a foundation from which the process of her paintings unfolds. Stories from her family, family photos and letters become a source of content that the work follows and then breaks free from. Rebecca’s love and deep understanding of painting allows her to establish a motif and then to improvise, the inherent beauty of paintings protean dexterity at her fingertips, a work may begin with a plan in mind but she is free to allow the paint to lead the story. Paintings suppleness and the artist’s mastery give her a freedom to break the pattern and discover something unexpected; a juxtaposition that may reveal or conceal the image, stimulating another interpretation.
She told me a compelling story of her Aunt Marjory who was rarely mentioned when she was a child but who she learned about as an adult and was able to get to know and spend time with before she passed away. “Marjory was the black sheep of the family, she married outside of the Mormon faith and so she was ostracized. The man she married turned out to be so abusive she had to leave him. Another mark against her in my family. She went on to go to college getting an undergraduate degree in English and a Masters in Psychology, and eventually she earned a pilots license. When I learned about her and spent time with her I was thrilled to meet someone in my family who I could identify with, whose intelligence and individualism gave me a sense of belonging I struggled to find in my nuclear family. In this painting from a family photo, she is strong and rebellious, someone I can identify with. I have painted the sky in with the MacDonald tartan, a symbol of my maternal Scottish heritage. It is these encoded histories and narratives that emerge within the paintings that are important.”
Rebecca is currently working on a new series for an upcoming solo show at Art Space Gallery at Fresno City College. In this new work, she is including images of letters, western union telegrams, rock concert tickets and tartan patterns. They are printed on thin pieces of silk that allows a transparency so that one can both see the image and see through them and they will be hung on simple elegant copper pipe armatures as freestanding pieces. Behind these there will be a projection using an App that creates the ambient light appropriate for the time of day; the rosy pink/orange of sunrise, the brightness of noon, and darkness of twilight. The sources of text and patterns are from the various histories of her family and her life. She said of these, “The center piece in this grouping is a letter I received from my father in 1991, when I moved in with my boyfriend Todd, who is now my husband and the father of my children. In the letter, on each page, he tells me that he loves me but also what a disappointment my choices have been. He tells me how morally wrong my decision is to move in together as an unmarried couple and that he cannot condone it. The intersection of his conservative Mormon beliefs (he was a Mormon Bishop) with my choices as a feminist woman, painfully illuminate the complexity and contradictions often entwined between love and beliefs. I deeply love my father, who is now 90, and I have a large painting of him when he was 19 years old the same age I was when he wrote me this letter. I hope the juxtaposition of the painting and the letter will speak to both the tenderness and distance between us as well as the affliction and discord between so many entangled in similar struggles.”
During our studio visit, Rebecca spoke of ‘text-pattern-image,’ of how the way that information is presented, the type set of a Western Union Telegram, the feel of the hand in cursive writing, the bold block letters on a ticket stub, each of these ‘patterns’ of information shape our interpretation. From these ‘patterns’ she is reacting and finding a way for the images in this body of work to emerge in response, to give the paintings hidden prompters that ricochet off of different modes of communication adding layers of content to the bold brushstrokes with which she captures her images.
There is a painting in her studio, “Miss April 1971,” a 6 x 14 foot long painting of a 1971 Playboy centerfold. She first collaged the image using different kinds of tape to obscure parts and to crop and frame others. It is a tour de force work that conveys her capacity to create startling juxtapositions of different forms of seeing, feeling and communicating. The fluidity of her bold brushwork is reminiscent of John Singer Sargent, a painter whom she loves. Ninety percent of these beautifully painted passages are obscured by flat, thickly troweled on paint to represent the tape she applied to the photo. This jarring juxtaposition of the nude Playboy model interrupted by the bold flat grey, metallic and white physical planes of paint that function abstractly like a Supremacist painting, is powerful, beautiful and strangely disturbing. She said in a statement about this work, “…I created something both beautiful and terrible. The image was so absorbing and quarrelsome…” It is a profound work whose metaphoric ambiguity speaks on many levels, and leaves one in rapt attention to the subjective tension between the balance and chaos of the image both formally and emotionally. It is her relationship to the “patriarchal image of beauty and desire, at once seduced and repulsed” that she explores, the female gaze obliterating parts and leaving others. It is a painting in which Rebecca traverses the complexity of male/female modes of feeling and seeing. She demands the same privilege allotted male artists to explore the dark textural of dissonance of beauty and desire and objectification.
Rebecca Campbell seeks to discover ways to embrace the contradictions inherent in the human condition, from the primal fact of being and nothingness, to making people disappear, erasing that which cannot be held within ones beliefs, to finding the renegade, the rebel in ones family whom one can see as their own. It is the ability to hold many contradictory emotions and images together, to capture in paintings the complexity inherent in being human. To hold all of this close together and find a truth within this labyrinth of love, belief and meaning; it is an undertaking worthy of a life’s work.