In “Dig,” a large and very colorful landscape in a portrait format, a middle-aged man, lean and strong from a lifetime of hard work, leans forward from the waist, his bare torso so shiny with sweat it reflects the sky above him. As he digs, the passion of his labor is reflected in the stormy sky. Or maybe he’s just in a hurry to get this necessary task done before rain turns his medium to mud. While I watched this timeless drama play out, a young woman came in, chatting with her preadolescent son, stopped, and stood riveted before the canvas. In a moment, we were sharing what each of us liked about the painting. We admired the way the painter’s strong brushstrokes not only defined the man’s muscles, but analogized them as instruments of power. She appreciated the curator’s point that the man’s trousers echo the color of the prairie grass behind him, and we agreed they were almost photographically rendered, as were his face and shovel. Then we pointed out to each other the mix of realistic and blatantly painted effects across the work’s entire surface. We agreed that this painting moved us, and that we were glad we could see it in person.
Nearby in the gallery are installed several parts of a project with the overall title “Two Year Supply.” The necessity of saving for an “unknown calamity” is explained, universalized, and then made specific again on the curator’s card. “Clean” is a wall of shelves lined with canning jars, each full of blue Windex meant to conjure the labor of making them fit to store food. For me, the sign reading Please Do Not Touch did more to make me think about what it took, at least for the museum’s personnel, to produce a wall of spotless glass, but the point about cleaning being an enormous yet uncelebrated task—one frequently relegated to women—was unarguable. At the same time, the blue color, lit by constantly shifting patterns of light, was hypnotic and induced an appreciative state of mind. Further afield, “Full” employed the same canning jars, this time filled with peaches and stacked—as the card pointed out, like a minimalist sculpture—so that their sheer bulk made the necessary labor and resulting, latent potential strongly felt. Here the symbolic value of preserving what is necessary is revealed and critiqued even as it’s being reinforced for those who participate. And that quickly emerges as part of Rebecca Campbell’s strength as an artist. She is able to question and even criticize the past forcefully, even as she revels indulgently in recalling so many complex and sensuous experiences.
Current critical opinion of these two very different kinds of art is that the former, painting, is nostalgic or backward-looking, played out, and no longer able to speak to its audience, while the latter, Contemporary—a term first applied to art 106 years ago, the meaning of which has shifted every decade or so since—with its mixture of media and consequent access to vivid presentation, mostly drawing from entertainment technology, is more immersive and involving. But of course this one-sided view is just wrong. In general, painting is a more intimate medium. The viewers of these windows into imaginary space enter it, but only within their own minds, having there a unique experience that remains personal. Installation, and all the other new forms, is social media, precursors of the latest, digital versions that have begun to reveal where these new ways of sharing are taking us. They’re impersonal, shared, increasingly compulsory experiences, where a rich, overwhelming intensity of sensation makes grasping and understanding difficult, if not impossible. A painting is an individual experience, given to quiet contemplation. Its viewer is outside, looking in, free to connect and change, or not to. By contrast, Contemporary art immerses its audience in the spectacle of scale. They are inside it, together, pressuring each other toward a post-experience awareness. Personal meaning and understanding are found not in the first-person encounter, but in the third-person dictate of a curatorial sign. Or, they may easily be omitted.
That said, Rebecca Campbell’s installations, seen at their best in her 2008-09 show Poltergeist, reflect her own experience and her family history, without imposing judgments that would prohibit her audience from sharing her recollections. At the same time, as painter she demands an up-to-date liberty to crunch together the entire range of representational and painterly effects. Except there is no crunch. Rather, she seamlessly weds brushstrokes that mimic the visual world with those that insist on their own identity: on their right to be what they are. And while The Potato Eaters, her current exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art, does not include her most fantastic scenes, with their utterly compelling, by turns anxious and celebratory, ongoing exploration of the consequences, negative and positive, of human liberty (though two come close), they do display in a more compressed form the astonishing skill of the artist, alongside her remarkable sense of what should not be overlooked in the all-but overwhelmingly sensual, phenomenal, troubling, and difficult world we inhabit.
As the curators explain, with Campbell helping in a pair of superb, very short videos, The Potato Eaters connects her family background, farming in southern Idaho, with Vincent van Gogh’s 1885 effort to ennoble peasants in Holland by showing them eating food they had grown themselves. Some of the paintings are black and white, images taken from a documentary source—family photographs—translated through family conversations, whence they emerge bearing the marks of time passed and hallowed by the reconstruction of memory. One of the most powerful of these is “Fern,” a child’s portrait that receives the benefit of Campbell’s willingness, on display in a recent collaboration with Samantha Fields, to spend countless hours seemingly perfecting a work, then all-but-obliterate it in order to make it congruent with her own vision. Other paintings are in color, sometimes reflecting her having been able to visit the original sites, while at other times bringing an element of imagination into play. “Dig,” in which she romanticizes her male forebears, is one of those, but so are “Ophelia” and “Glow.” Like all her most compelling works, these two images depict women in perplexing, disturbing contexts. Those seeking a clue to the mysteries of “Ophelia” might start with “Big Fish,” in which a family trio shows off a couple of dozen fish they’ve caught.
Campbell’s Potato Eaters celebrates two formerly possible means of liberation. One is the family farm, perennial source of independence before land became too expensive for private ownership. The other is World War II, which briefly in some ways, and then permanently in other ways, changed the balance of domestic power across America. Small-town living figures in both streams: “Mom’s Sweet Sixteen” and “Dad With Car” each depicts a moment of personal power. Then again, “Where Dad Saw His First Black Man” blows the whistle on an entire historical era that lay hidden behind the orderly, geometric images of Precisionist painters like Edward Hopper, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keeffe. “Snake River” takes painting to the opposite extreme, wherein not a single detail is rendered, yet from the interaction of drips and smears a heartfelt sense of place emerges.
However, neither “Snake River” nor “Rattlesnake Pass,” with their theoretical blending of Expressionism and Color Field painting, marks the extremity of Campbell’s accomplishment. While the staff of the BYU Museum of Art celebrate the visual shorthand that allows her to render volume in space with unblended colors, as seen in the curved facade of the defunct business in “Dealership,” or the fleshy beauty inexplicably floating athwart “Glow,” a more important measure of her accomplishment is the way she convinces her audience to accept not only that floating figure, wrapped in Christmas tree lights, but conflicting modes of depiction that swim like independent schools of fish in a single, luminous sea. The history of art was once full of the breakdown of such distinctions, as the stagy, encyclopedic, and in retrospect overpainted art of the high Renaissance gave way to successively less labored, less meticulous, more lively and energetic impulses. What stopped that history in its tracks was not running out of rules to disobey or sacred principles to jettison. Rather, at some point artists and their audiences seem to have run out of patience with each other, as have so many disparate parts of society, and that loss of good will has done immeasurable damage, bringing human progress, on any but commercial and technological grounds, to a standstill.
So perhaps the important thing about Rebecca Campbell is her generosity of spirit, a good will that suffuses her art and allows her to paint an often uncomfortable truth without alienating her audience in the process. Between that and her virtuosic ability to find and share brilliant new uses for painting, she points the way to a future for art, and those who would not do without.
“The Potato Eaters,” Rebecca Campbell, BYU Museum of Art, Provo, through Feb. 18, 2017, moa.byu.edu
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.