Steven Campbell: Captain Hook and the Lost Travelogue Writer

Post written by Claire Paterson, recipient of the Steven Campbell New York Scholarship

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Steven Campbell, The Childhood Bedroom of Captain Hook with Collapsible Bed

While I’m here in New York, I’d like to write about 2 of my favourite Steven Campbell paintings – one of which inspired some poses in my most recent collaborative photo-sessions with models.

The Childhood Bedroom of Captain Hook with Collapsible Bed (above) features a figure that resembles Steven Campbell himself as a younger man, standing in a claustrophobic space, with the painted world encroaching in on him from every side.

At the bottom of the canvas you can see another inclusion from the story of Peter Pan: the crocodile that swallowed Captain Hook’s hand and tormented him, throughout the rest of the tale, with a ticking sound from a clock that it had also swallowed – this ticking perhaps acting as a symbolic reminder of Hook’s own mortality. There’s also a grandfather clock in the background of the work, again drawing attention to the passage of time, despite the fact that everything in the painted scene is fixed and static.

In the top left hand corner, there’s what might be a portrait of the artist as he was when he was working on this piece, staring in at his younger self. Here, time is segmented: past and present coexisting in the painted world. We’re perhaps encouraged to think of what Captain Hook may have been in his youth and innocence, before he became a villain plagued by the idea of mortality.

Next to the artist-character’s face is an object that could be interpreted as either a palette or a mirror, and which reflects the artist’s face whilst simultaneously decapitating him. Paint from its surface spills into the canvas all around, forming a pattern of abstracted space. We begin to wonder whether the figure himself has also spilled out of the palette, as he’s of course no more real than the patterned alligator at his feet.

The figure of the young artist is brandishing a knife, and seems to be attempting to slice through the illusions around him. He’s cut into the palette and the canvas world he’s inhabiting, but has uncovered only more illusion – painted blood that’s just as artificial as the painted walls he’s trying to escape. It appears that the figure is attempting to hang himself with his own hair, but looking closer we become aware of an odd detail: the arm that’s holding him aloft isn’t his own arm, as the hand is the wrong way round. This makes us think that the arm could in fact be a representation of Campbell’s own right arm as he paints the picture and this representation of his younger self.

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Steven Campbell, Portrait of the Lost Travelogue Writer

Portrait of the Lost Travelogue Writer (above), depicts a figure that also resembles Campbell.

In this piece, the artist’s identity has shifted yet again to become the character of the Lost Travelogue Writer, who’s lost his way in the pictorial world and is trying to make sense of his situation by sketching in his notebooks. As the writer Neil Mulholland points out, ‘the main protagonist looks every inch the maverick archaeologist in search of ancient civilization.’

The location the Travelogue Writer inhabits is surreal, and we can see in the background famous landmarks and works of architecture from all over the world, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Vatican, the Pyramids, the Sphinx and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Through this doppelgänger-like character, Campbell’s immersing himself in a quest, where he searches through the great landmarks of civilisation, art and culture, trying to uncover truth. The character brandishes an enormous pencil, and on first glance he appears to be sketching a picture of two little girls playing with a puppy. When you look again, however, you discover that the sketched image is an optical illusion that forms the image of a skull, and this makes us aware, yet again, that nothing’s what it seems in this painted world.

The Travelogue Writer appears to have stumbled across the scene of an accident or murder, with a figure lying sprawled in a pool of what could be either blood or paint. Above, strange Picasso-esque blue figures hover, and we don’t know whether they’re tending to the man, or have participated in his murder. Picasso as an artist was interested in exploring new ways in which to paint and perceive the human form, and the Travelogue Writer has stumbled across this scene where creatures from a certain era of painting are perhaps complicit in some sort of crime or ritual.

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Pose improvised in collaboration with model Celeste Dudley, with wishbone sculpture contributed by Amber Fleming, and metallic triangle contributed by Robert Picker

During our collaborative session, NY figure model Celeste Dudley noticed the picture of The Lost Travelogue Writer on my studio wall, and immediately noted correlations between Steven’s painting and some of the props in my studio (the wishbone, the triangle-sculptures etc.), so we decided to recreate the pose of the murder-victim.

The other NY model I’ve been working with – Zeke Jolson – has also written a little bit about the link between some of Steven’s ideas, and the myth-making sessions that have been happening in my studio. I’ll end this section of the post with some of Zeke’s perceptive and thoughtful comments:

‘Claire, I enjoyed reading your insightful posts about the amazing works of Steven Campbell. Perhaps it’s not too much to say that Collaborative Myth-making offers us another or related way to explore the tension between fixed and illusory worlds, where ‘characters are suspended between different places in a sort of limbo or no man’s land.’

‘To what extent can we find a measure of certainty and security in our various environments, or will we be overwhelmed by the chaos or dangers that can threaten us, or even undone by our own fears? Do we feel the need to retreat to a world of make-believe because we don’t want to accept the world as it is, or because something holds us back from doing so? These are just a few of the questions that came to mind after having read your posts and done some further thinking about our Collaborative Myth-making.’

Quote provided by New York figure model Zeke Jolson

Note: A major source for this blog post is the book ‘Steven Campbell: Wretched Stars, Insatiable Heaven’, by Kathy Chambers and Neil Mulholland (available to order on Amazon)

Finally, here are a few highlights from my 6th week in New York (that’s me reached the halfway point of my 12 week residency!):

New York Week 6

Tuesday 6th December

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After a day in the studio, I attended a lecture by German artist Kristina Buch, who discussed her work ‘One of the things that baffles me about you is that you remain unmurdered’ – the documentation of which is part of the Animal Mirror exhibition currently on at the ISCP.

I also enjoyed hearing about her work Some at times cast light (2015), where she installed the bronze bust of a fictitious woman in a public site in Bochum, Germany, alongside an official street-sign – the work highlighting how we can be easily manipulated into believing whatever version of history we’re fed, the piece also providing feminist commentary on the lack of celebrated female historical figures and monuments commemorating them.

Wednesday 7th December

Today I had a visit from ISCP’s Sophie Prince, who took some photos of my studio and works in progress. She also gave me some good tips about things to look into in relation to my project, recommending that I visit the NY production of the interactive, site-specific work of theatre ‘Sleep no more‘, in which the public dons masks and wanders through a large house rigged with theatrical lighting, interacting with the actors.

Thursday 8th December

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Above: One of Louise Bourgeois’ famous spider sculptures, located in the back garden of her Manhattan residence

This morning I went on a field trip to the Louise Bourgeois house in Manhattan. Ordinarily the house is closed to the public, but the ISCP arranged for a small group of us to gain access.

It was fascinating wandering the narrow corridors and rooms of Bourgeois’ house, seeing the accumulated treasures of an artistic life: nick-nacks and random oddments, an eclectic range of books, sculptures from various stages of her career, phone numbers scrawled in pen on the walls, diaries and bits of paper containing scribblings, through which she attempted to work through artistic and personal problems – all of this juxtaposed with signs of her ordinary everyday life.

A particular highlight of the tour was seeing the window where Bourgeois would sit in her later years when she was elderly and housebound, watching life on the street outside and sketching passers-by.

After this, I went to a Chelsea gallery and had lunch with Laura Fitzgerald, an ISCP resident who’s just arrived from Ireland and is now in the studio next door to me.

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Nicholas Roerich Museum

In the afternoon, I went to the Nicholas Roerich Museum on the Upper West Side.

Roerich was a Russian painter, writer, theosophist and mystic – interested in hypnosis and other spiritual practices, and part of a movement of the Russian avant-garde who did ‘experiments on the spiritual dimension of art.’

My friend Elizabeth Kay (who’s been collaborating with me on my project), put me on to Roerich’s work, knowing that I’d be interested in some of the philosophical issues he explores.

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I had the Museum entirely to myself, and was able to to wander the 3 floors alone, viewing the strange, otherworldly works in complete silence.

Flicking through some of the books on display in the museum, I also found out that Roerich was a set designer obsessed with theatricality. I was very interested to read this quote, particularly in relation to my own project:

‘To gain deeper insight into Roerich’s paintings, it is useful to apply the notion of ‘theatricalization’. Theatricalization may be defined as the act of making theater of something, of dramatizing or focusing the spotlights, as it were, on various aspects of human existence to illustrate their significance. As it emerges in such ‘theatricalised’ works, the meaning of the images themselves appeal to us and resonate as something common to all of us…’

(Visions from the other side: Works by Nicholas Roerich / Joe Troncale)

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After the Roerich museum, I went to an opening of work by ISCP resident Mikkel Carl, who was exhibiting in the apartment of gallery owner Ana Cristea.

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Mikkel Carl’s exhibition ‘Now Moving Towards the Inner Circles of Reality’

The entire apartment had become part of the work: from red lights installed in the bathroom to fake security cameras mounted in the living room and bedroom, giving the illusion of surveillance.

After the opening, I went for a couple of drinks at an Irish pub with ISCP’s 2 Irish residents, Elaine Byrne and Laura Fitzgerald.

Friday 9th December

Today I had a meeting in my studio with curator and writer Sara Raza, who is currently curating the third phase of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.

We chatted for a full hour, and she gave me a lot of advice on the way she thinks my work should be presented in a show. As well as exhibiting the paintings, she said it’s important to make people aware of the process behind them – and like the critic Adam Kleinman, thought I should possibly do a publication in conjunction with a show: a book that contains letters to artists and models, conversations I’ve had, info on collaborating artists, photographs from the modelling sessions, images of diagrams, and descriptions of the whole ritualistic process from beginning to end.

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Le Corbusier’s diagram for ‘The Modular’

Sara also gave me an extensive list of artists and theorists she thought I’d be interested in, including the Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig, who writes about Shamanism and Colonialism; the sculptor and essayist Jimmie Durham; Turner prize winner Goshka Macuga, who makes installations which incorporate other artists’ work alongside a variety of disparate objects. Sara also thought I should look into the ‘anthropometric scale of proportions’ devised by the French architect Le Corbusier (above).

Saturday 10th December

This afternoon I took a short break from the studio, and went to an opening in a gallery called The Safe, right next door the the ISCP, which was showing an eclectic range of female artists in a show called ‘Women artist’s for women’s rights.’

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Opening and fundraiser at The Safe Gallery, East Williamsburg

Now I’m settling into a couple of days of painting in the studio, enjoying the peace and quiet!

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